The new season of the English Premier League (EPL) will kick off on Aug. 11, and one of its newly-promoted teams is Fulham Football Club. Fans may know it as the first EPL club to sign a Singaporean player.
On July 13, Fulham announced the signing of 17-year-old Ben Davis. Davis, who was born in Thailand to a Thai mother and a British father, received his Singapore citizenship in 2009.
Davis signed his contract with Fulham on June 29. However, we may not get to see a Singaporean playing in the EPL after all.
On July 14, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) announced that Davis's application for National Service deferment was rejected. Davis is scheduled to enlist in December 2018.
On Aug. 6, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen spoke in Parliament, saying that NS deferment cannot be for individuals to pursue their own interests or career, even if it vicariously brings Singapore credit or fame.
He added that granting a deferment to Davis to pursue his professional career would be unfair to many others who serve NS dutifully as required.
English, not Singaporean
"Mr Ben Davis is playing for Fulham FC as an English national, not a Singapore citizen. MINDEF is not privy to the contract signed between them, but we assume this published information is correct and that the father must have his reasons for doing so."
If you look at Davis's player profile on Fulham's website, it states that his nationality is English. The biography mentions that he was called up to the Singapore National Team, but it also mentions his British heritage.
The reason for this may lie in UK laws governing foreign player signings.
All footballers outside the European Union must apply for a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) with the English Football Association, before the UK Home Office will consider granting them a work permit.
How does one obtain a GBE? The first method depends on the national team's FIFA ranking and the percentage of games played.
Get your GBE
For example, if a player comes from Brazil (ranked 2nd in the world by FIFA) and has played more than 30 per cent of his country's international matches in the past two years, he qualifies for a work permit.
For countries ranked lower by FIFA, the more games you need to play. A player from Cameroon (ranked 49) needs to have played 75 per cent of international matches to qualify.
This presents a problem for Davis on two counts:
- Singapore's FIFA ranking is so low that it's not even on the list (the ranks stop at 50).
- Davis has not represented Singapore in any international matches so far.
The second method would be for the club to ask an FA panel to grant the player a work permit based on "experience and value."
This is a points-based system depending on a number of criteria, like transfer fee and wages. But Davis would find it difficult to obtain a permit this way, as he's unlikely to be paid a star player's wage.
Glory to Singapore?
So it would be easier for Fulham to obtain a work permit for Davis if he is registered as an Englishman, and not a Singaporean.
But if he does play for Fulham as an Englishman, it undermines the argument that allowing Davis to defer his NS would bring glory to Singapore, since he's not doing so as a Singaporean.
Currently, it is against Singapore law for someone to hold dual citizenships in Singapore and another country after the age of 18.
Mindef also stated that neither Ben nor his father Harvey Davis were willing to commit to a date by which Davis would come back to Singapore and serve NS, had he been granted a deferment.
On July 19, the Straits Times quoted Mindef as saying:
"When asked during the deferment application process when Mr Davis intended to return and serve NS, Mr Davis' father would not commit to a date and expressed that he would put Mr Davis' professional career first."
In response, Harvey Davis said:
"I agree 100 per cent that Ben should do his national service... The only question is timing as we would like to give him the best opportunity to play at the highest possible professional level in the UK and Europe. If Ben does not get a renewed contract or new contract by May 2020, then he should return to serve his NS."
He added that there was a possibility that Davis could be offered a new contract, be sold to a different club, or sent on loan.
By saying that Davis should return to serve NS only if he fails to sign a new contract, it appears that the contract takes a higher priority than his NS obligations.
This goes against the principle that deferment can only be granted if it serves the nation's interests first, and not the individual's.
How it could be different
So what could Davis have done -- or could do now -- to turn things in his favour?
1. Serve NS early
Take the example of Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi, the sons of Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad. They enlisted for NS in 2016, even though they were playing for Home United and the Singapore u-21 squad at the time.
According to Mindef, Ikhsan even asked to be enlisted early. Said then-Home United manager Philippe Aw:
"It’s good for them to enlist earlier; the sooner they complete their obligations the faster they can go to Europe and hopefully be a success there."
Perhaps Davis could have followed in their footsteps and asked to serve NS earlier. Once completed, he would be free to pursue his professional career in Europe, much like the Fandi brothers.
2. Commit to a date
Davis could help his case by working with Mindef to pin down a date for his NS obligations.
This was what swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen did. They first applied for a deferment until after the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, to enable them to train and compete.
Following their good performance in Brazil, they applied again for another deferment until after the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, and were granted this extension by Mindef.
According to the Premier League, a player is considered "homegrown" if they have been registered with an English or Welsh club for three years before their 21st birthday.
Clubs need to register a minimum of eight homegrown players if they want to use a full squad of 25 players for the season.
This is separate from the work permit issue, but it does mean that Davis would be a more attractive player for EPL clubs if he does get a work permit.
Perhaps Davis could set a date to perform his NS after being contracted to Fulham for three years, thereby securing his homegrown status and giving him an advantage in pursuing his professional career afterwards.
3. Commit to Singapore
Davis must also demonstrate his commitment to Singapore. He could do so by making it clear that he will not be playing for the other national teams he is eligible for, Thailand and England.
Thai football authorities are aware of Davis's situation, and seem inclined to snap him up for the Thai team.
Said Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Thai League Benjamin Tan to FourFourTwo:
"The Thailand National Teams are constantly and continuously scouting for players locally and overseas who are eligible under the FIFA rules to represent their association or Thailand.
So we will be open about such opportunity given to these players (including Ben) provided that he’s able to impress the coaches over here in Thailand. Having seen him played, he will definitely be an asset."
As Davis has yet to play for Singapore, he could theoretically "jump ship."
If he makes it publicly clear that he is committed to Singapore's national team, it could strengthen his case that granting him a deferment could bring glory to Singapore football.
Davis was called up by Singapore in March this year for a match between Singapore and Maldives. However he was ultimately not included in the starting line-up or the bench.
Mothership has reached out to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on the reasons behind his exclusion and whether Davis has, to date, indicated that he is interested in playing for Singapore in any upcoming matches. We will update the article when FAS responds.
Top image from @FulhamFC's Twitter page.