SINGAPORE: A former Malaysian national swimmer who holds permanent residency in Singapore was given eight weeks' jail on Tuesday (Feb 9) for defaulting on National Service (NS).
Lim Ching Hwang, who has won medals in regional competitions such as the Asian Youth Games, pleaded guilty to two charges under the Enlistment Act, with another charge taken into consideration.
The 24-year-old athlete said in mitigation that he was "too focused on swimming" and listened to the "ill advice" of his parents to finish his studies overseas before returning to Singapore for his NS obligations.
The court heard that Lim came to Singapore in 2010 and studied at the Singapore Sports School until 2013, enjoying subsidised school and training fees.
"The Singapore Government subsidised his education and training at S$25,000 per year under its Foreign Sports Scholarship Scheme," said Deputy Public Prosecutor R Arvindren.
Lim was given Singapore permanent residency status under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme in March 2014 and became subject to the requirements of the Enlistment Act. The Singapore Swimming Association had supported his application for permanent residency.
Two days after being granted PR status, Lim reached the enlistment age of 18. He received a registration notice in May 2014 asking him to register for NS.
However, he was offered a scholarship by a private entity at around the same time to pursue university studies in the United States from September 2014.
Lim registered for NS in May 2014 and applied for deferment. He was granted a deferment until May 2017 in order to pursue a diploma at Republic Polytechnic. However, he did not complete his studies in Singapore and left the country in July 2014.
That same month, Lim and his family tried applying to defer NS so that he could pursue university studies, but did not succeed as the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) "does not usually grant deferment for university studies", the court heard.
The Lims were told about the requirement of a bond for an exit permit to be issued, but they were "unhappy with such a policy". They did not produce such a bond, and instead continued to try applying to defer Lim's NS enlistment in 2014 and 2015.
After Singapore authorities told Lim's father in February 2015 that Lim had to book a date for medical screening in preparation for enlistment, Lim's father said his son had already started university studies in the US and would be renouncing his Singapore permanent residency status.
The authorities replied to tell Lim's father to contact the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority if his son wanted to renounce his status.
Lim returned to Singapore on Jun 2, 2015. He admitted that he complied with the ensuing medical screening because he was worried that he would not be able to enter Singapore for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games held in the country due to his offences.
He was medically graded fit for enlistment on Jul 7, 2015, but left Singapore that same day for the US and continued trying to apply for deferment.
He failed to report for enlistment on Nov 11, 2015, and a police gazette was issued against him. He finally returned to Singapore on Jun 11, 2018, after completing his university studies.
He said he wanted to resolve his NS offences because he intends to swim competitively in Singapore and pursue a career in Singapore in future.
He enlisted in April 2019 and completed his NS on Feb 2, 2021. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to two charges of remaining outside Singapore without a valid exit permit from July 2014 to June 2015 and from July 2015 to June 2018.
The prosecutor asked for at least two months' jail, noting the duration of Lim's offences, as well as his guilty plea and voluntary surrender.
TOO FOCUSED ON SWIMMING: LIM
In mitigation, Lim said he is "deeply regretful" of the actions he committed "as a boy", adding that he has "come back to face the consequences as a man".
He said he was "too focused on swimming" and could not resist the temptation of a scholarship to study at a prestigious university. He added that he had listened to the ill advice of his parents to finish his studies before returning for NS, and said he "should have nudged them more" to put his exit permit in order.
Lim said he was under "mental stress" because of this case and is glad he was able to complete NS and serve Singapore. He added that he wished to tell all boys that it is "beneficial to serve NS" before finishing university, citing "leadership skills that young men are exposed to" that cannot be taught in university.
He "strongly encourage(d) young men to look forward to NS and to serve it diligently as it is related to Singapore's security", and said he has decided to be in Singapore.
He was allowed to begin his jail term on Feb 23. For remaining outside Singapore without a valid exit permit, he could have been jailed for up to three years, fined up to S$10,000, or both.
Lim is the 17th person to be jailed for defaulting on NS since the High Court set out a sentencing framework for such offences in 2017.
In a previous statement, MINDEF said all male Singapore citizens and permanent residents have a duty to serve NS and it is important that NS "has the support and commitment of all Singaporeans".
"To achieve this, we have to adhere to the fundamental principles of universality and equity in NS. If we allow Singapore citizens or PRs who are overseas to evade NS or to choose when they want to serve NS, we are not being fair to the vast majority of our national servicemen who serve their country dutifully, and the institution of NS will be undermined," MINDEF had said.