SINGAPORE - It is an issue that has raged on for years and last month, the national service-sports debate was again thrust into the spotlight.
There is little doubt that footballer Shakir Hamzah deserved his four-day sentence for going absent without leave from national service, even if he did so to play for the LionsXII in a Malaysian Super League football match.
Yet the episode does raise the question of whether more can be done to help young national athletes cope with the rigours of elite sports training and two years of full-time national service (NS).
To be fair, current programmes adopted by the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Civil Defence Force allow athletes to balance their sport career with their NS obligations.
They are accorded full pay, and unrecorded leave to train for and compete in events such as the SEA Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Olympics.
In May 2010, Deputy Prime Minister and then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean also said in Parliament that exceptional athletes can be granted deferment from NS to prepare full-time for major competitions.
One example was sailor Justin Liu, whose NS was deferred so he could train for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. He successfully defended his Asian Games crown in the 420 two-person dinghy class, together with Sherman Cheng.
Factors such as the athlete's "past achievements, his potential in his chosen field and the need for the deferment" are considered, DPM Teo added.
There are merits to such stringent, case-by-case, criteria, said Nominated Member of Parliament Nicholas Fang.
"NS is something everybody has to go through," said the president of Fencing Singapore and the Singapore Modern Pentathlon Association.
"If you open the door for athletes, people will make similar arguments for, say, the arts like music and dance. Where, then, do you draw the line?
"There will of course be exceptions but we cannot really afford to excuse large groups of people at any one time."
More S'pore athletes making their mark
THE Ministry of Defence's (Mindef) case-by-case review system means there could be some busy years ahead for its decision-makers. Singapore athletes are closing the gap on their continental and even global rivals.
Take for example Adam Swandi - tipped by many to be the next big thing in Singapore football.
Already a Singapore international, the 17-year-old was coveted by Spanish side Atletico Madrid but chose to hone his football development at French second-tier side Metz.
While making big strides in Europe, his progress is likely to be put on hold when he returns to serve his NS after he turns 18.
It is at that crucial stage of his career, then, that the youth could find himself falling adrift of his European peers.
"I believe young players in Singapore are the same as in Europe - England, Germany, France or Italy," new Singapore national coach Bernd Stange said last month.
"But when they turn 17-, 18-years-old, there is a break. But in Europe, they are stepping into big teams."
Swimming talent Joseph Schooling is another preparing for NS - the 18-year-old will be eligible for enlistment next year after he completes his studies at Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida.
His NS stint comes at a time when his swimming career is making considerable strides. In the first half of this year, he broke three national records and, more significantly, outswam the United States' 11-time Olympic medallist Ryan Lochte in the 100m butterfly at the Speedo South Sectional Championships in March.
Joseph harbours high hopes of winning a medal at the 2016 Olympics and hopes to defer his NS to focus on his training in the pool.
Parents of these teens understand the importance of NS but hope for a compromise.
"To me, there is no question - he must serve NS," stressed Mr Hishammudin Hasan, father of karter Daim Hishammudin.
The 15-year-old is the youngest member of the Caterham Racing Academy and has set his eyes on racing at the pinnacle of motorsports - Formula One.
To date, his accomplishments include victory in the junior category of last year's Rotax Max Challenge Asia Series.
The team behind his rise to prominence is optimistic that a middle ground can be reached to ensure that NS complements, rather than disrupts, his progress.
"We have an idea that needs to be socialised and aligned with the folks in Mindef," Mr Hishammudin continued, while declining to disclose any details of the proposal.
"Daim will be enlisted at a decisive age for athletes, so it is critical that we know early on whether Mindef can be flexible.
"That way, we will know what to do to ensure all the hard work that all parties have put in will not go to waste."
NS is not just a Singaporean struggle
THE struggle of coping with NS commitments is not unique to Singaporean athletes. Countries like South Korea and Russia also practise conscription, yet regularly produce top sporting talent.
In South Korea, for example, all males must serve a 21-month stint by the time they turn 29.
There are, however, military teams like Sangju Sangmu, who play in the second tier of the country's professional football league, that allow servicemen-athletes to continue their sporting pursuits as a form of alternative service.
Former South Korean national footballer Lee Lim Saeng did not play for the team but benefited from training with them - a privilege accorded him by his camp commander.
"I really appreciate that he allowed me to play football, even though it was only in practice," the current coach of S-League club Home United recalled.
"I wasn't able to play in competitive matches but the training helped me keep in touch with my professional career in football."
In Germany, before time was called on conscription in 2011, elite athletes were also given time off from their duties to train on a regular basis. Soldiers would serve at their respective units from dawn till noon, and spend the rest of the day training or on physiotherapy sessions.
Indeed, it was a similar programme - the SAF Supernumerary Scheme (Safsa) - that helped keep members of Singapore's football team in the 1970s and 1980s in tip-top shape.
Under the initiative, the likes of R. Suriamurthi, Leong Kok Fann, Edmund Wee and Jeffrey Lazaroo were hand-picked to represent Safsa in what was the Football Association of Singapore's old Division One league.
Seconded to a common unit after completing their basic military training, they would take to the field for as many as six hours a day, over three sessions.
"It was a way to ensure that we did not miss out on playing football while we were in NS," recalled Suriamurthi, now 55.
"We were kept together, trained together and actually became more professional. My football actually improved while I was serving my NS."
Can athletes be given more help?
On its part, the Singapore Government is increasingly making sporting excellence a priority.
In less than a year, the $1.33 billion, 35ha Sports Hub will open its doors and is expected to play host to world-class sporting events.
In March, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong announced at the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament a new High Performance Sports framework, with a $100 million budget.
Of that, $40 million will be dedicated to the Sports Excellence Scholarship, which provides an enhanced level of support for promising young athletes.
But money alone does nothing to help Singapore's young sporting stars balance sport and NS.
"Athletes in sports like swimming have a short career span," Mark Chay stressed. "There is a high opportunity cost if they are to put their college education off to serve their NS."
The former Olympian believes it would be a win-win situation if elite athletes like Joseph are allowed to defer enlistment until they are past their peak.
"Personally, I'd rather have a full-time soldier whose distractions of high performance are over," Chay pointed out.
"Also, attributes like discipline and teamwork that he will pick up through sport are cornerstones of the army. With that, he will be able to make a greater contribution during his NS stint."
Much investment has gone into grooming elite athletes. Singapore now has a growing pool of young sporting talent capable of making their mark internationally.
It would be a pity if they are not able to sustain their training to a level where they can do their nation proud in the sporting arena, and then return to the training field.