SINGAPORE: A Singaporean man who spent most of his life in Hong Kong was sentenced to nine weeks' jail on Thursday (Nov 5) for defaulting on his National Service (NS) obligations for almost five years.
According to his defence lawyer, 22-year-old Jonathan Lee Han Wen was born in Singapore but went to Hong Kong with his parents when he was a month old.
He was soon after granted permanent residency in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, where he lived with his Singaporean mother and father, a British citizen with Hong Kong permanent residency.
Lee studied there and later pursued a degree at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, said defence lawyer Ashwin Ganapathy.
As a Singapore citizen, Lee successfully applied for five Singapore international passports and travelled to places like China, Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong with them.
He had known about his NS obligations since he was in primary school, said the prosecutor, with his aunt and mother telling him about "the need for Singapore boys to serve NS".
His mother had chosen to give birth to him in Singapore, as she wished for him to have Singapore citizenship to allow him to return to the country "as a place of relative stability", the court heard.
NS DEFERMENT APPLICATIONS REJECTED
His mother repeatedly applied for NS deferment until her son turned 21 years old, pending renunciation of his Singapore citizenship.
She was rejected, with the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) explaining that Singaporean men have to fulfil their full-time NS obligations before a request to renounce citizenship can be considered.
Lee spent a total of four years, eight months and 30 days outside of Singapore in default of his NS obligations under the Enlistment Act, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Gabriel Lim.
During this time, he returned for pre-enlistment documentation and medical screening, but again left the country and chose to remain outside Singapore to pursue his bachelor's degree.
His name was put down in the police gazette and stop list twice - the first in 2014 and again in 2017. When he returned to Singapore in September last year, he reported to CMPB and later reported for enlistment into NS.
Lee pleaded guilty to four charges under the Enlistment Act on Tuesday.
The prosecution had asked for at least nine weeks' jail after adjusting it down to take in Lee's voluntary surrender and guilty plea.
LEE HAD "LITTLE OR NO LINKS" TO SINGAPORE: DEFENCE
Mr Ganapathy asked for no more than that amount, saying that his client "did not think much" of a letter from CMPB regarding his NS obligations when he was 16 years old.
He said Lee realised it was an offence to evade NS obligations only when he was in the middle of university studies, when his mother told him that he could be jailed if he evaded NS.
"Out of sheer panic, our client went to the university's student-relations management and informed them of his predicament," said the lawyer.
He was told that he could not defer studies for two years and could defer only for a year. If he did not re-enrol after this, he would be deemed as having withdrawn from the course and would not have his fees refunded. The court heard his father had paid about S$230,000 for his studies.
Lee decided to finish his university education before serving NS after his father told him he should complete his studies first.
"It is clear that our client had little or no links to Singapore," said the defence. "Our client, a Hong Kong citizen who never thought of living in Singapore, could not comprehend why he had to disrupt his life and education to serve a nation he never once considered home."
Lee renounced his Hong Kong permanent residency status on Nov 20, 2018.
The lawyer said Lee wished only to serve his sentence, finish his NS obligations and return to Hong Kong to start life afresh.
Lee could have been sentenced to jail for up to three years, fined a maximum S$10,000, or both for each charge.
The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a statement on Tuesday that it takes a firm stand against those who commit offences under the Enlistment Act.
"All male Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents (PRs) have a duty to serve NS and it is important that NS has the support and commitment of all Singaporeans," said MINDEF.
"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," it added.
In Lee's case, MINDEF said, he chose to "wilfully" remain overseas to pursue his university studies despite being aware of his NS obligations, returning to serve only in September last year after he completed his studies.
"In doing so, he had gained an unfair advantage vis-à-vis his peers who served dutifully when called upon to do so," said MINDEF.
The ministry also noted that Lee had returned to Singapore in January 2017 to renew his passport. After it was renewed, he defaulted again to continue his university studies, said MINDEF.
Thirteen defaulters, including Lee, have been sentenced to jail since the High Court set out the sentencing framework for NS defaulters in 2017.