National Service (“NS”) is a 2-year commitment for most Singaporean sons. Being a conscript means being called to serve in an unfamiliar environment when one has to quickly adapt to the rigors and discipline of military life. These prospects can be intensely daunting – for a wide variety of reasons – leading to soldiers and soldiers-to-be losing morale and even facing difficulty in performing their NS obligations satisfactorily. This first half of a 2-part series will look at some of these failures for men already donning Singapore Armed Forces (“SAF”) fatigues, namely: Absence Without Leave (“AWOL”) and Desertion. This article will look at how these transgressions are defined under the law and what the punishments for them are.
A term often used in a military context, being AWOL simply refers to a serviceman not being where he (or she) is supposed to be, and not having a valid reason for it. It is found under section 22(1) of the Singapore Armed Forces Act (“the SAF Act”), where:
"Every person subject to military law who is absent without leave from service in the Singapore Armed Forces or from the place where he is lawfully required for the time being to be shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction by a subordinate military court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or any less punishment authorised by this Act."
It should be noted that it can be a defence for a person charged under section 22(1) to prove that “his absence was a result of circumstances over which he had no control”, as found in section 22(2). Such a defence is exculpatory – which completely absolves the serviceman of the offence. An example suggested by Singapore Legal Advice presents the situation where a serviceman who failed to return to camp on time due to a last-minute flight delay or cancellation, a circumstance over which the serviceman had no control, would not be found guilty of going AWOL.
Outside of that, punishment for going AWOL can be up to a maximum term of 2 years (at least where imprisonment is concerned). Several factors such as the time and the frequency of absences influence the severity of the sentence. A serviceman having a history of multiple AWOL convictions is likely to be given a detention sentence by the court. A planned evasion of duty is one of the more serious instances of AWOL while an accidental misreading of a clock would be an example of a less serious offence. Additionally, serious physical or mental conditions may allow for a discount in sentencing. While financial hardship may be a possible mitigating factor for reducing an imprisonment sentence, the circumstances must be extreme and exceptional.
AWOL cases can be high profile, and some do make it onto the news. One such instance would be that of Mr. Wang Yinchu, who went AWOL with one month left of NS to serve in order to retain a coveted admissions spot in the University of Cambridge to pursue medical studies. By the time of his eventual return, he had been AWOL for almost 8 years. Originally, he was sentenced to three weeks’ detention. On appeal, however, this was increased to 18 months.
Mr. Wang was by all accounts a good soldier, student, and citizen. Regardless, as in a High Court case cited by the prosecution, there is a deterrent value in the sentencing consideration for AWOL cases. NS is about placing Singapore’s interests above one’s own – that is duty to the country. Courts must be fair to those servicemen who perform their NS commitments diligently, and at a “personal sacrifice to themselves and their families”.
Ultimately the stance on going AWOL can be encapsulated in the Ministry of Defence’s response to media enquiries over Mr. Wang’s case: “AWOL is a serious offence. [The Ministry] will continue to take stern disciplinary action against servicemen who commit AWOL offences”.
Desertion is a much more severe charge as compared to going AWOL. While both involve a serviceman failing to be present for duty when he is supposed to (without a valid reason), desertion is typically (but not necessarily) distinguished from going AWOL by the length of time that a serviceman is absent. Desertion is found in the law in section 23(1) of the SAF Act, where:
“Every person subject to military law who deserts shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction by a subordinate military court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or any less punishment authorised by this Act.”
As compared to going AWOL, the SAF Act actually defines desertion, as seen in section 23(2)(a) and 23(2)(b). In section 23(2)(a), a serviceman deserts if he “leaves or fails to attend at his place of duty in the Singapore Armed Forces with the intention of remaining permanently absent from duty without lawful authority, or, having left or failed to attend at his place of duty in the Singapore Armed Forces, thereafter forms the like intention”. Alternatively, in s 23(2)(b), a serviceman deserts if he “absents himself without leave with intent to avoid service or any particular service before the enemy”.
Interestingly, it has been noted by the courts, albeit in obiter, that “the number of days is not the crux of an offence of desertion”, although it is useful in establishing whether the serviceman had intended to permanently remain absent from duty. In the same case where this statement was made, it was stated that even a single day could qualify as desertion.
Incidentally, desertion does not appear to be as well-reported as AWOL as far as state media is concerned. Accessible cases tend to date back to the 1990s or even earlier. Some pertain to failing to report for Reservist Trainings, with sentences being around 3 to 4 years’ imprisonment. Given the national security climate of the time, such a sentence was not held to be “manifestly excessive”. This writer believes such a perspective would remain in courts today. Nevertheless, there is some allowance granted for “very good grounds, [and] strong mitigating circumstances”, which can have a reductive effect on sentencing for desertion. Such a test does not appear to be easily fulfilled, however.
The sentencing for desertion (a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment) is thus much harsher than that for going AWOL (a maximum of 2 years’ imprisonment). As seen in the language of section 23(2)(a) and 23(2)(b), this is because desertion includes an intention not to return to service or duty. This distinction does not occur in section 22(1) for going AWOL (which only looks at the act of being absent temporarily, as seen above).
Ultimately, both AWOL and Desertion involve a failure on the part of a serviceman to commit to the duty expected of him as a member of the SAF, and to perform those duties when it is expected of him. When this writer was an NSF (National Serviceman (Full-Time)), he served as a Naval Officer and did not encounter instances of AWOL or Desertion cases during his service. He notes that there exists a multiplicity of reasons that might drive a serviceman to go AWOL or to Desert and observes that a significant portion of servicemen convicted of AWOL admit that financial hardship was the main reason for making the decision to go AWOL. While these decisions cannot be condoned on principle, he also notes that there are SAF-related initiatives to help lighten the burden faced by NSFs, including the Term Financial Assistance plan. He encourages relevant readers to consider such schemes, and to consult their immediate unit commanders for advice.
This writer looks forward to further exploration of the law in the next part of this series, which revolves around the evasion of NS by those who are yet to be inducted as members of the SAF.
 “Military Law and How It Affects Every Singaporean Son”. Singapore Legal Advice .com, 24 Jan 2018. https://singaporelegaladvice.com/law-articles/military-law-and-how-it-affects-every-singaporean-son/ (last accessed, 23 Dec 2018).
 LCP (NS) Nathakumar Baduil v Chief Military Prosecutor,  SGMCA 5, at 
 SLTC Ong Su Chiun Archer v Chief Military Prosecutor,  SGMCA 3, at 
 REC (NS) Yeoh Oon Yu v Chief Military Prosecutor,  SGMCA 4, at 
 Chief Military Prosecutor v PTE Akmal Bin Abdul Rahman  SGMCA 4
 Alkhatib, Shaffiq. “Longer detention for doctor who went AWOL”. The Straits Times, 16 Jun 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/longer-detention-for-doctor-who-went-awol (last accessed, 23 Dec 2018).
 “Reply to Media Queries on Court Case for AWOL Offence”. Ministry of Defence, 06 Jun 2015. (last accessed, 23 Dec 2018).
 PTE (RES) Peh Koon Her v The State,  SGMCA 4, at .
 PTE (RES) Tan Khim Lim v The State,  SGMCA 1, at .
 PTE (RES) Chang Kai Meng v The State,  SGMCA 3, at .
 Ibid, at .
 Mahmud, Aqil Haziq. “14 per cent of NSFs convicted for AWOL say main reason is financial hardship”. Channel News Asia, 10 Sep 2018. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/14-per-cent-of-saf-nsfs-awol-main-reason-financial-hardship-10701514 (last accessed, 23 Dec 2018).