Technically speaking, Ben Davis is a 17 year-old footballer who signed a contract with Fulham FC and now seeks to defer his National Service. Born of an English dad and a Thai mom, he is a mere teenager, the middle child in a family of three and the first Singaporean to make it to the prestigious and seemingly unattainable English Premier League.
So when Mindef said ‘no’, the internet naturally exploded in a whirlwind of sympathy, grief, and outrage.
However, the truly interesting thing about this whole debacle is not Mindef’s predictable answer of fuck-off, but our own reactions towards the decision.
As The Pride rightly pointed out, few commentators care very much about Singapore Football. If you need evidence, just head down to Jalan Besar stadium on any given day and count the tumbleweeds.
In truth, Ben Davis is not about football at all, but Singaporeans’ own lingering grievances about Singapore.
If you need evidence, just take a look at the opinions that have emerged.
Only a small minority of football die-hards are concerned about the implications for Singapore football. No one has requested to see a video of Ben Davis playing, and few netizens have raised the issue of what this means for the younger talents who will surely be disheartened by Mindef’s decision.
No, most the of the debate circles around fairness. Or rather, the lack thereof.
The moderate camp sees Ben Davis as yet another martyr on the cross of bureaucratic tyranny. If Joseph Schooling and government scholars can defer, why can’t poor St. Ben?
Some want him to flee because they consider NS a waste of time, and others want him to serve because they wasted their 2 years and hence everyone should as well.
The chauvinists see him as yet another foreigner milking our government’s largesse while the pro-government ultras see him as a failed challenge to a government policy that’s entirely fair and forever must be. They even wheel out Fandi Ahmad’s sons as a means to berate this unpatriotic asshole for thinking of self before nation.
We are merely projecting unto this teenager all of our own problems—from anti-government sentiment and mistrust of foreigners to a simplistic hatred of MINDEF.
The questions worth asking is why?
But why is it that every issue in Singapore always turns into a political Rorschach test?
I blame the lack of a proper national discourse.
The issues swirling around Ben Davis—national service, government scholarships, what to do with sporting talents—should have been addressed long ago. After all, the exact same issue was raised when eSports players like Gavin ‘Meracle’ Kang were denied leave to play in regional tournaments and classical pianist Melvyn Tan was arrested after landing in Singapore.
However, no satisfactory consensus was ever forged.
Legitimate grievances about the 2-year disadvantage caused by NS were plastered over with NS50 vouchers, and questions about the special privilege accorded to government scholars received no convincing answer. In what Cherian George calls our ‘high-handed’ policy-making style, the questions received no convincing reply and were basically buried in a shallow grave.
Until Ben Davis came along and ignited the debate all over again.
When news first broke of a Singaporean in the EPL, everyone was secretly praying for Schooling v.2.0. We wanted a winner who will inspire younger sportsman, score against the likes of Liverpool, and revive those feel-good Olympic moments where everyone felt, however briefly, to be on the same side.
Instead, the search for said national symbol has revealed Singaporean society’s divisions in full HD glory.
Neither Schooling nor Ben Davis can fix this for us. No matter how many medals won or goals scored.
Sporting glory might unite the nation for a glorious and uncomplicated minute, but it’s ultimately a distraction from the deeper issues that plague us. It’s time that our government held a real debate about issues like NS, and deferment for scholars and so-called ‘foreigners’ instead of just kicking the ball away.
Ben Davis is just a vehicle for these deeper grievances. If they remain unresolved, it’s only a matter of time before something else causes this articulated resentment to surface once again.