Pay back our love

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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.

Brandon Smith (middle) with his parents Cindy and Shane. Pic by James Gunn from stuff.co.nz

Brandon Smith (middle) with his parents Cindy and Shane. Pic by James Gunn from stuff.co.nz

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.

Payback time

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:

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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

25 Responses to “Pay back our love”


  1. 1 chrishansenhome 26 January 2016 at 03:10

    I agree with you. There is a logical contradiction between not allowing dual citizenship and requiring those men who have Singaporean and A.N.Other citizenship to return to do NS.

    Brandon’s situation would have been alleviated if his parents were aware of the method of renouncing Singaporean citizenship for children of mixed citizen parentage. The government should make all mixed citizen married couples aware of these rules. (Of course, they would not then be able to draft these couples’ sons into the Armed Forces, but on the positive side, they would avoid the logical contradiction and a lot of negative publicity.)

    The comments in the article you linked to were quite interesting. I didn’t count, but it seems that around a third of the commenters were advising Brandon to just “suck it up and go back and do service”. The rest were advising him to wait until he’s 21 and renounce Singaporean citizenship–but none seem to have twigged to the fact that if he hasn’t done his NS he won’t be allowed to renounce his citizenship even after he’s 21.

    Many countries have abolished conscription in favour of a professional army that is well-trained and motivated. Conscripts who are pressed into service during a war are not as useful in battle as regular Army soldiers.

    Sadly, he will probably just have to be careful not to travel to or near Singapore, as he will be arrested and conscripted or jailed if he does.

  2. 2 Anon bC&X 26 January 2016 at 09:58

    Can’t he just do R&D like Tony Tan’s son?

  3. 3 jamesteopy 26 January 2016 at 10:28

    If he got another country citizenship logically he should be stripe of Singapore Citizen as Singapore do not recognise dual citizenship.
    In this case anything to do with Singapore is null and void.

  4. 4 guansin 26 January 2016 at 10:38

    This is a complex issue indeed. Let me throw in two perspectives:

    (1) When foreign parents convert to become Singapore citizens, they can convert their children similarly. However, the difference is that, the parents are required to renounce their foreign citizenship whereas the minors get to keep theirs until they are 18/21 years old (I am not certain on the number). You can say the minors live on dual citizenship during this period of time. One possible rationale is that the minors get to choose which citizenship they want to keep/renounce only when they become adult. (I think this rationale applies to Brandon Smith’s case, notwithstanding the NS issue.)

    (2) Second generation PR is liable to serve NS. Again, I am speculating the rationale here: although they are not citizen, having lived and grown up in Singapore the whole/most of their lives, they are very likely to become citizen eventually. If they can choose, they are likely to do the conversion past the NS age.

    IMHO, the issue is not just on the merits of NS and national loyalty/pride per se. But it is the ridiculous amount of effort, justification and thinking that the PAP administration has put in to plug all possible holes against the few draft-dodgers and shirkers. It contributes to the overall suffocating country that Singapore is today and the negative public perception against NS. Rather, the focus should be on how to make NS a desirable thing, an effective nationhood mechanism and efficient use of resources and talents.

    • 5 yawningbread 31 January 2016 at 11:26

      If anyone at 18 cannot choose/renounce citizenship because he is still a minor, then (a) make 18 the age of majority, (b) let the person choose citizenship BEFORE he enlists.

  5. 6 Ka Wei 26 January 2016 at 11:10

    National Service is for the future. Looking at what the kid has consumed is backward looking and not helpful. Doesn’t make sense to force someone to serve full time national service, spend loads of money while doing it, and then for this person to renounce his citizenship when he turns 21.

  6. 7 james 26 January 2016 at 11:17

    living overseas has made me greatly appreciate all the good things singapore has done for me, i can’t wait to get back to singapore   thanks pap, thanks singapore. you are the best. for all the first world services(like mrt) and world class education and safety, multicultural experiences, which have all been taken for granted. i thank you, singapore, from the bottom of my heart

  7. 8 Anon pP22 26 January 2016 at 12:10

    What may encourage people like Brandon Smith to serve NS is the revival of the “white horse” classification. Except maybe now extend it to cover not only scions of local elites but also offspring of expatriates from White countries like New Zealand.

    Of course the anecdotes about special treatment are completely false (Cedric Foo notwithstanding), but anecdotes are what people like Brandon Smith will hear and that may just get him back to serve NS.

  8. 9 Anon pP22 26 January 2016 at 13:53

    “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”?”

    It’s not attractive even to ourselves! Why? Neighbours’ kids.

    We want to live in a place where people value education enough to be prosperous.

    But not so much that our own kids have to study all the time to be top of the class.

    We can only be happy when our neighbours are far less kiasu than us, but are socialized and educated enough to create societies that provide excellent public services. The way of the opportunistic parasite.

  9. 10 Nicholas 26 January 2016 at 15:01

    I know of a Friend who has a Mother who is Filipino and a singaporean Father who has passed away. His situation is the exact reverse. He was born here and has lived here all his life. He just finished his O levels and has been told that he can’t be a citizen or a PR.

    It’s weird to see why the government doesn’t want someone who wants to contribute to the local society and wants someone who has left and doesn’t want to be here.

  10. 12 Anon gWQ( 26 January 2016 at 15:44

    I read your article with understanding as a born and bred male Singaporean. I agree on points such as “fear of SGs renouncing citizenships in the future”. On a personal note, I feel it is a very difficult issue to address because the government is trying to be fair to our male citizens, knowing that the vast majority will cry foul if such cases were not handled “by the rule book”.

    It is a clear 2.5 years contributed to our country up to the generations born in the early 80s. I suppose it is not about how the affected person is being treated (in this case Brendan), rather it is how the rest of the SG male citizens who have served, who are serving and who will serve are being treated. I can see that a young man is in a situation of circumstance.

    2.5 years, no matter how enriching it was to the SG male individual is after all 2.5 years of unconditional commitment of our lives. How is this 2.5 years then “paid/repaid”? Should the response be “It is paid/repaid by you being able to live in our great Singapore”? Singapore is a great place…to work. We want it to be a great place… to live too.

    You have mentioned “anti-foreigner tone”, if we all dig deeper, heavy sentiments is generally down to the heavy hearts of many citizens living in Singapore who may be feeling the heat to live in Singapore (l refer to those that are fighting hard for a livelihood to those fighting hard to improve their lives, I leave other variables aside since it is a short comment here). Most SGs do not have a choice to live in another country, they are encouraged to keep up with the competition to remain afloat or permanently fall behind.

    A Malaysian earns 1 SGD and is able to spend up to 3 MYR in his/her country. A Malaysian banquet waiter in an SG hotel may earn up to SGD 2000 per month and that’s MYR 6000 (That’s generally a manager’s salary in Malaysia if not more). For sure they will choose to go back to their homeland. For many other foreigners from other countries, it is even more lucrative to earn the SGD. It is not the fault of SG, we aim to continue to work towards SG being a great place to live as citizens N work but how do we beat that? MYR 6000!!! in many parts of Malaysia is a lot a lot of money for those who work in SG (we exclude Johor)

    We have heavy hearts in SG…

  11. 13 Kevin Low 26 January 2016 at 17:37

    “The question that really needs to be addressed is this: Why is Singapore not as attractive?”

    Actually I don’t think this is the case. I think the opposite may be true – There is so little difference between a non-citizen living in Singapore and a Singapore citizen living in Singapore. If one can enjoy the benefits of being in Singapore, without having to serve NS, then why not?

  12. 15 Qiao Zhi 27 January 2016 at 12:40

    Let’s face it Alex, after 4 decades (?) of “Lee Kuan Yew – ism” the PAP and civil service still think they are the personifications of the late man himself. Nearer the truth is that they (including his son, the current PM) are but poor carbon copies – very blur.

  13. 16 Chanel 27 January 2016 at 16:27

    1) Whilst it is true that a child cannot choose his place of birth or upbringing, his/her parents certainly can. Their parents make the choice for the child by proxy.

    2) This NS policy has been the long standing position of the S’pore government, so parents cannot claim ignorance as defence.

    3) The Bugge brothers may have “failed several times” in renouncing their citizenship, but it isn’t clear whether their repeated attempts were over a short span of time…..eg. they tried a few times in the same year.

  14. 18 Anon reS3 27 January 2016 at 22:07

    The policy is outdated based on old assumptions that is less relevant. Those in power do not analyse actual events and many do not wish to upset the apple cart by suggesting alternatives for they guard their rice bowls with great care. But there are a variety of reasons why people left the country not necessarily because of politics but I would say many left for simple mundane reasons that highly personal and important. To give one example, if a person have only one son, he would not risk his only son in military service where injuries may killed or injured his only son. In the early years, if you are a Chinese and your son cannot speak, write Chinese, he will not ever get a seat in a limited openings in Singapore university or even in the limited JC. There are many software reasons compared to hardware. If you take the time to talk to many in such predicaments, you will get the low down on this matter. But many find it is useless to air their problems to the Singapore government officials for it is a waste of time. For nothing can changed unless the former PM Lee wants it to be.

  15. 19 Jim Hane 28 January 2016 at 12:37

    Good article above. It really comes down to the quality of life in Singapore as compared to the quality of life in Western countries.
    In Singapore there is very little justice (due to the criminal justice being strongly slanted against the accused, the absence of civil rights (e.g. the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of religion), the high cost of living which is artificially created by government policies, artificially depressed wages for the average Singaporean (the Cabinet Ministers are all grossly overpaid with all sorts of privileges), overcrowding, poor working conditions (labor legislation doesn’t give much protection to workers) and the huge number of workers from the Third World who are willing to work harder, longer hours and for a smaller wage than Singaporean workers.
    The long working hours, low wages and not good working conditions, the absence of a state pension for citizens and the high cost of living are all putting lots of strains on the locals. Its virtually impossible for the average worker in Singapore to retire.
    The average citizen doesn’t have much time for family. So, divorce, mental illness and a general dissatisfaction with life is increasing. Family relationships are beginning to be badly effected.
    Unless a Singaporean is a government scholar and a “yes man”, there is little prospects for career advancement in Singapore.

    Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament and the most senior citizens have lots to gain if they toe the line. But, they have lots to lose if they openly disagree with the PAP controlled government. That’s the system here.

  16. 20 Nonplussed 28 January 2016 at 21:03

    These guys should not be granted citizenship in the first place. Their fathers are not Singaporeans.

  17. 21 Ponder Stibbons 29 January 2016 at 03:10

    To me there is a direct parallel here with the choice to use coercive measures to retain ‘talent’ via scholarship bonds, rather than to improve working and living conditions in Singapore so that the ‘talented’ will actually want to return.

  18. 22 Krishnan Sudhakaran 29 January 2016 at 10:30

    The need for National Service arose because of our geographical situation. A country that gambles away its security so that it can be an attractive place to live in is treading on thin ice.It does not matter if it is a !st or 3rd world country. If it is a national policy,then expect the inconvenience of being a citizen. For the majority of us, there is pride in serving the country because all that belongs to us is here. There are many who have one leg here and another somewhere else. There are reasons why some of these people do not renounce their citizenship earlier in their lives. There is no incentive to do so because everything is in a state of flux vis a vis, the state of their country they live in. National service is decision time,hence the commotion from some of these people.If you want to temper with the national policy, take it to the extreme, I suppose you must also be prepared for the consequences. It is sad that some parents remove their children when they are so young, keep hanging on to their Singapore citizenships, eventually make them fugitives and blame the system here.

    • 23 gu 31 January 2016 at 14:12

      1. Having conscripts (even assuming to the max, that most are willing and happy to do so) to ensure security, is not a “gamble”?

      2. Having citizens of another country from around our ‘geography’, who just happen to reside in SG for some time, to ensure our “geographical security”, is not a “gamble”?

      3. Could the issue is really not about the “inconvenience” of being a citizen, but rather the absurd “convenience” of these so called new citizen, PR, FT etc Vis-à-vis what the “inconvenienced” citizens perceived to be fair return for these “inconveniences”?

      4. Not long ago, not only NSmen were proud to serve, employers will also give higher starting pay to those who completed NS. Doing Reservist then never had to worry about losing their job or fear of lose of competitiveness vs FT, etc etc … these days, only “pride” and perhaps fear, are left to keep them going?

      5. To renounce citizenship, one would have taken up another. Unlike SG, it usually take a while for other countries (especially 1st world) to grant citizenship. Maybe this is the reason why people “do not renounce their (SG) citizen earlier in their lives”? assuming they were even allowed to?

      6. Would any “blame the system here”, if the system is similar to all who serve the countries in various capacity and level? eg if benchmark compensation is used to entice one group of people to spend their lives serving the country, then should the same “benchmark” be used to compensate another group who are expected to give their lives for the same country?

      “take it to the extreme, I suppose you must also be prepared for the consequences”?

  19. 24 Jake 31 January 2016 at 10:24

    Actually just realised that the 2008 statement by Col Darius Lim was word-for-word a parroting of Teo Chee Hean’s statement in 2006:
    http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/press_room/official_releases/nr/2006/jan/16jan06_nr.m.html#.Vq1uwUX0qnO

  20. 25 Ragnar 7 March 2016 at 05:45

    The link below to a recent article in New Zealand states that Brandon Smith’s brother was given deferment so how does this reflect on the ministers views on fairness?

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/77537205/singapore-not-backing-down-on-kiwi-teen-doing-national-service


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