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SINGAPORE — Singapore marathoner Soh Rui Yong has waded in on the topic of national service (NS) deferment for sportsmen, saying that the public should not be bitter about athletes getting deferments to develop their sporting talents.
In a post on his Facebook page on Tuesday (10 May), the 30-year-old described how he had struggled with his fitness during his own NS, and hopes future talented runners could have the option to develop during their prime years.
"The first step towards Singapore becoming a first-world sporting nation is having a gracious and understanding public, so that the government can make the changes it needs to make without fearing backlash for giving exceptions," he wrote.
"Otherwise, we can simply continue watching our teams get soundly beaten at all international competitions, even at the regional SEA Games, sometimes with players that used to play for us but are now on the other team after NS issues."
On Monday, former Singapore national youth footballer Ben Davis, who represents Thailand now, scored the opening penalty goal in his side's 5-0 rout of Singapore at the SEA Games men's football competition in Vietnam.
Davis, 21, was denied deferment on his NS in 2018 after signing a professional contract with then-English Premier League club Fulham. He eventually defaulted on his NS obligations in 2019, before switching his nationality to Thailand.
Soh said in his Facebook post that he hit his lowest fitness level during his NS, as his race timing for the 5km distance slipped from 16min 3sec during his junior college days to over 17 minutes in the army, after putting on 6kg in his first year.
"I don’t talk about this much but it was also one of the lowest points of my life as I derived a lot of my identity and satisfaction from training hard and succeeding as an athlete. I was unable to do that properly with the restrictions and schedules that we all go through as military men," he wrote.
"It was my dream then to represent Singapore well at the SEA Games, yet I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of my competitors in other countries were training hard and gaining so much ground that I’d never be able to make up the deficit in the future."
Soh was thankful to his coaches and training partners that he managed to make a successful comeback in his marathon career after his NS and win two SEA Games gold medals in 2015 and 2017.
Nonetheless, he wrote, "Was my journey ideal? Definitely not. Most of my peers simply gave up after NS and moved on to other things in life. Would I want another talented young runner to have to go through two years of military service just because I did? Definitely not.
"I think it would be in the country’s best interests to allow him the option of developing during his prime years and racing first, and serving National Service later (or better yet, build sports into part of the NS program). I wouldn’t be bitter or unhappy about him getting special treatment just because I didn’t get the same special treatment.
"I hope more of us can adopt this attitude moving forward rather than, 'I served without a deferment, therefore everyone else must too'."
Soh was omitted by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) to represent Singapore at the upcoming Hanoi SEA Games, despite meeting the qualifying marks for two events. SNOC has said that Soh's conduct "fell short of the standards of attitude and behaviour the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to".