The case of Brandon Smith raises a slew of very uncomfortable questions for Singapore, questions I have yet to see anyone ask. So far, much of the discussion I have seen on my Facebook feeds have centred on what the law says and the rights and wrongs of the young man’s refusal to return to do National Service. (Admittedly, what I get on my Facebook feeds is algorithmically skewed. There may indeed be deeper discussion somewhere, but I’m not seeing any.)
The ugliest parts of what I have seen are comments that adopt an anti-foreigner tone. These comments are particularly unhelpful, because they distract from key issues that this case points to. I hope to draw these out in this essay.
Dual citizenship and National Service
Let me first begin by summarising a few details from Brandon Smith’s case. The 19-year-old was born in Singapore to a Singapore-citizen mother (who is now a Permanent Resident in New Zealand) and a New Zealander father. According to the report on http://www.stuff.co.nz (referenced in my first sentence), Brandon Smith left Singapore at age eight. Under Article 121(1) of the Singapore Constitution, a child born to a citizen in Singapore is automatically a citizen. However, Brandon is also a New Zealand citizen, I guess by virtue of paternal descent.
Singapore does not recognise dual citizenship, so it does seem strange that we are insisting he is a Singapore citizen when he is also a New Zealand citizen. You would have thought that as soon as someone can show he is a citizen of another country, we should consider his Singapore citizenship to be invalidated. Otherwise what does it mean when we say we do not allow dual citizenship? Moreover, we don’t allow 19-year-olds to renounce their Singapore citizenship. They must first have reached 21 and have completed National Service before they can do so. But once again, what does such a rule mean when seen against the inflated arrogance of “we don’t recognise dual citizenship”?
Failure to perform National Service when demanded is a criminal offence, and if Brandon cannot get the Singapore government to change its mind and give him a waiver, he risks being arrested, fined and jailed should he ever return to Singapore in future.
Netizens have been quick to unearth an August 2008 statement by the Ministry of Defence’s then-director of public affairs, Colonel Darius Lim, in which he said, “Only persons who have emigrated at a very young age together with their families, and who have not enjoyed the privileges of Singapore citizenship, will be allowed to renounce their Singapore citizenships without serving national service.” This quote appears in a Straits Times story (25 August 2008, “Give up citizenship? Brothers must do NS first”) Link. (It is also archived at this link.)
That statement came out of a controversy swirling around three Norwegian boys born to a a Singaporean mother. From the Straits Times story,
The Bugge brothers – Thorbjoern, 33; Ingvar, 31; and Frode, 30 – left Singapore when each turned 18 and have tried and failed several times for over a decade to renounce their Singapore citizenships.
They want to renounce their citizenship so they will be free to visit their parents – Mr O.M. Bugge, 65, and his wife Margaret, 55 – who still live here.
They cannot return here because they have been classified as NS defaulters and risk arrest on arrival.
They were all born here and are considered Singapore citizens. But they also hold Norwegian citizenships, like their father.
They first left Singapore when they were five, three and two years old respectively, and lived in Norway for 10 years before returning here.
But each left Singapore after their O levels, and just before they could be called up for national service.
The first point to note is that they “failed several times … to renounce their Singapore citizenships”. It appears that Singapore did not allow them to do so, which once again, shows the hopeless contradiction vis-à-vis our rule against dual citizenships. Norway has compulsory military service, complete with reservist obligations. All three Bugge brothers served their Norwegian National Service, and the youngest even stayed on as a regular, serving in conflict-ridden Kosovo and Afghanistan. One cannot say they are draft-dodgers and shirkers.
Colonel Darius Lim’s statement reported in the Straits Times argues that since they “enjoyed the privileges of Singapore citizenship” when young, they must return our love. And that somehow we have a right to compel them, by threat of imprisonment if necessary, to pay back that love. Statements like this one are not only wrong, they are so unintelligent, Singaporeans should hang our heads in shame.
First of all, a child has no agency; he cannot choose where he was born or raised. To demand a transactional quid pro quo under such circumstances is to take leave of reality. It also smacks of unreasonable injustice: how can we demand payment for something over which the other party had no choice?
Secondly, a State should provide educational, healthcare and other benefits, not because they are meant to “buy” your loyalty, but because it is the right thing to do, and to create a better society. One hopes that the child grows up to love this place — the same way that parents provide for their children in the hope that they will treasure the relationship all through their lives — but such provision should never be seen as downpayment for future returns. If you try to enforce it as downpayment, you end up resorting to such illiberal, coercive measures, you turn off that very love you yearn for.
Thirdly, it is a bit rich for Singapore to stake claims on getting returns on our investment (privileges of citizenship). After all, we’re all too happy to attract immigrants from other countries, reaping the benefits of the educational and social investments provided by foreign governments. This lack of self-awareness is something I have often noticed of our government and bureaucrats. We deserve our disrepute for being two-faced.
Fourthly, what is the point of spending more money training and equipping a young man doing National Service when he has clearly indicated he is going to quit this place?
The unspoken fear
The real reason why Singapore ties itself in illogical knots over this issue is the fear that when people have a choice of citizenship, they will abandon Singapore. In 2014, 37 percent of marriages registered in Singapore, where at least one party is a Singapore citizen, were of a transnational nature (i.e. to a non-citizen spouse). We can expect a large number of children to have a choice of citizenship. If the trend is towards renouncing citizenship, that would have implications for our defence. It is an existential problem.
Here are the numbers from the Statistics Department:
The government is taking a hard line on this matter, and you have to wonder whether it is because they believe that it is important to compel people to serve National Service in the hope that once they have served it, there is less reason to give up Singapore citizenship.
Indeed, the problem can be called the migration arrow problem. The fear is that Singapore is seen as a far less desirable place compared to most developed countries, and when people have a choice, there will be a net outflow. It punctures the pretence that we are in the same league as the developed world. This is not to deny that there are millions more who would gladly move from their less-developed country to Singapore and take up citizenship here; we aren’t at the bottom of the migration-desirability scale. However, “those people” tend to be browner, with poorer quality education and (it is subconsciously believed) are not so well “socialised”. Given the subliminal racism that pervades our government, no comfort can be taken from the fact that replacement bodies from these countries are available.
I don’t even think National Service is such an important factor here — although it appears to be the proximate trigger for Brandon Smith’s decision — because (according to this chart http://chartsbin.com/view/1887) conscription exists in 64 countries, including a few European ones. (The chart is not entirely reliable though, since it shows the Philippines as having conscription when I don’t think that is so. Look too at this list from the Central Intelligence Agency.) Many societies live with it. That said, those societies higher up on the migration arrow scale tend not to have conscription, in which case we then have a competitive disadvantage.
Thus, the crux of the matter isn’t what the current law says, or whether Brandon Smith is right or wrong. That’s a storm in a teacup. The question that really needs to be addressed is this: Why is Singapore not as attractive? What is wrong with this place that when people have a choice of another developed country, there is a tendency to choose the other — despite all our economic progress and claims of “liveability”?
This opens up a huge basket of questions; I won’t get into them here. Suffice it to say that if we think our hardware measures up, then the deficit must lie in the software. What is it about our State, our culture, our politics, our attitudes and neuroses that are such turn-offs? And is a coercive response, such as seen in Brandon Smith’s case, something that moves us up or down the desirability index?
Postscript. 3 March 2016
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave a definite statement to Parliament saying that Smith must return to Singapore to do National Service.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question, MFA said, “All Singaporeans are expected to fulfill our NS obligations as citizens. It would not be fair to allow citizens to avoid NS just because they reside overseas.”
MFA added that even if Smith were to apply to renounce his Singapore citizenship after he attains the age of majority, he is still liable for any breaches of the Enlistment Act. MFA also advised Smith to return to Singapore as soon as possible to resolve this matter.
Smith could face a two-year jail term and a $10,000 fine if he does not enlist.
— Yahoo News, 2 March 2016, New Zealand-based teen must serve NS: MFA. Link