Help our gifted young men

It was possibly the greatest result in Singapore's football history, but coming on the night when the country drew an enthralling South-east Asia (SEA) Games to a close on home soil, the fuss was not as noisy.

Izwan Mahbud did get the "SUPERMAN" moniker after a stunning performance when the Lions held mighty Japan to a draw in Saitama in a World Cup qualifier last Tuesday, some Japanese even called him a goalkeeping god.

Hariss Harun was also outstanding, a midfield titan who hardly looked out of place against some of the best footballers in Asia.

If the 24-year-old had been allowed to defer his stint in National Service, I am convinced he would be starring in Europe now and be an even better footballer.

Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) president Tan Chuan-Jin's plan to work with Mindef and try to grow the pool of gifted male athletes allowed to defer enlistment in National Service is a hugely significant development, as the country strives to become a rugged sports nation like New Zealand, Switzerland and Belgium.

Mr Tan is Minister for Social and Family Development, and when he left the army in 2011 to enter politics, he carried the rank of brigadier-general.

He carries weight, and I believe his public comments over the issue is the first by someone who was held in such high regard in the military.

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament in Oct 2013 that deferment from NS could be granted for exceptional athletes who can win on the world stage and instil national pride in the country.

Mr Tan's decision to try and "push the boundaries" - his own words - is welcome, because young men blessed with athletic gifts should be given all the support necessary to realise their potential. Many agree that NS cannot be compromised and a Singaporean male must serve his time.

What Mr Tan wants to do is explore if more athletes can defer enlistment to pursue their athletic dreams.


Like swimming star Joseph Schooling.

The 20-year-old, a sprinter who specialises in the butterfly, continues to make waves after Mindef successfully granted him deferment until August 2016, just after the Rio Olympic Games. A world-class talent, Schooling's benchmark is the one to follow.

His support team put together an exhaustive plan that did not compromise on details, setting timed targets and milestones to meet in a journey that will end in Olympic glory next year, hopefully.

If there is a youngster with the ability to win on the world stage, then he must be willing to put in the hard work and sacrifice for the tough trek ahead.

And along with his parents and the particular National Sports Association, and the Singapore Sports Institute and SNOC, deliver a convincing blueprint for Mindef to mull over.

Those with world-class potential are rare and they must be given every possible chance to make the most of their gift.

Surely that is what a nation owes its sons.

And they have to be given the time to realise their ambition, because this is clearly not an exact science.

What is true is that Schooling has the class, and is young enough, to even win at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and if he wants to continue battling his rivals consistently at the highest levels, I believe there is a case to be made for Mindef to help even after Rio.

Surely, there will be nothing lost if his NS stint begins once he retires from top-level competition.

SNOC chief Tan also wants to see if he can work with Mindef and come up with a system that allows enlisted national servicemen - those who have not obtained deferment - the flexibility to train and prepare for major Games or events. Time off, flexibility with work hours, these are compromises which will help them bring glory to the nation.

The manner in which Singapore celebrated the record-breaking SEA Games, the way in which a people came together and cheered on our athletes, are clear indicators of the kind of magic athletic success can generate.

I remember how proud this country was when Fandi Ahmad and V Sundramoorthy represented Singapore in Holland and Switzerland.

More than anything, this country fetes a top-class football star and Hariss, the Johor Darul Ta'zim ace who is set to be Singapore's captain for years to come, could have been flying our flag high right now somewhere in Europe.

His is a case of what-might-have-been.

For Singapore's sake, let's do our best to help youngsters like him from now.

This article was first published on June 23, 2015.
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