By Fathin Ungku
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The first Singaporean footballer to sign for an English Premier League club will have to put his career on hold to serve in the military, the Asian country's government has said, prompting him to appeal against the decision.
Benjamin Davis, 17, has signed a two-year professional contract with newly promoted Fulham, the first player from the south-east Asian nation, who are 169th in FIFA's world rankings, to join an English top-flight club.
Davis's application to defer his compulsory military service was rejected by Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).
The midfielder holds British, Singapore and Thai passports and if he is forced to make a decision, he is likely to choose a career in football over his Singapore citizenship, his father Harvey Davis told Reuters.
"It's not something we would want to consider, but at the end of the day, if it's something that is put on the table and forced to consider if he's not deferred, we have to make the decision to the best interest of our child," Harvey Davis said.
"People tell us it's not a big deal, to come back (to Singapore), serve in the army and go back (to play in the Premier League). There is no going back, it doesn't work like that," he added.
Singapore's decision not to defer Davis's military service has prompted public criticism that the city-state is missing out on a rare opportunity to advance the sport. An online petition that started on Sunday calling for Davis' deferment had 3,643 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
"Should he succeed, this will give our country a good standing and reputation for successfully breeding local talent to succeed in the international arena," the petition said.
The Singapore Defence Ministry said on Sunday deferments from the national service (NS), as conscription in Singapore is called, are granted only to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore.
"Benjamin James Davis' application for deferment was not approved as he does not meet the criteria for long-term deferment from full-time NS," it said.
In the past 15 years, only three people have met the criteria, including swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore's first ever Olympic gold medal, in the 100 metres butterfly, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
It is compulsory for all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents to serve two years in the military. Those who refuse to join the army face up to three years in jail and a fine of S$10,000 ($7,300) under the country's Enlistment Act.
(Reporting by Fathin Ungku, editing by Ed Osmond)