He may just be the highest-profile Singaporean alive, but the suddenly famous Kevin Kwan is not getting the red-carpet treatment in his hometown.
The author of the best-selling novel and executive producer of the smash-hit movie Crazy Rich Asians was a very high profile absentee during the Singaporean premiere of the movie, leaving the jade-green carpet of the Capitol Theater on Tuesday night to be trodden by stars such as Henry Golding, Constance Wu and Tan Kheng Hual.
The next day, things became clearer. The Ministry of Defence in Singapore (MINDEF) released a statement that seemed the most likely explanation for Kwan’s absence: He had “evaded” mandatory national service, making him liable for a fine or being jailed for up to three years, it claimed.
The statement was released on the Ministry’s website and said that Kwan had “failed to register for National Service (NS) in 1990, despite notices and letters sent to his overseas address. He also stayed overseas without a valid exit permit. Mr. Kwan is therefore wanted for defaulting on his NS obligations.”
According to reports, Kwan grew up in a multi-generational house in Bukit Timah and attended primary school at Singapore’s Anglo Chinese School until the age of 11, when he moved to Houston, Texas with his parents and two older brothers.
Although The Straits Times mentioned in 2017 that he is an American citizen, he is still regarded as a Singaporean citizen in the eyes of the law.
Singapore does not allow dual citizenship. To maintain American citizenship, Kwan would have had to renounce his Singaporean citizenship. However, according to MINDEF, his application and subsequent appeal to renounce his citizenship were rejected due to the fact he had not served his country.
All male Singaporeans are liable for full-time national service at the earliest point in time from when they turn 18. It is a serious business and few exceptions have been made. Swimmer Joseph Schooling was granted a deferral and ended up winning Singapore’s first-ever gold in the 2016 Olympic Games. But he will still be required to serve time after the 2020 Olympics.
However, 17-year-old Benjamin Davis was not as successful. He sought to defer his enlistment in military service in order to play for English Premier League club Fulham, but his appeal was rejected by the Ministry of Defense last month.
The Ministry says: “It would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development. Very few applications have been approved over the years and based on criteria which are made known to the public.”
Meanwhile, Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood film to cast Asians in every role since the Joy Luck Club in 1993. Kwan, whose film adaptation has so far grossed US$35 million at the box office and been massively lauded in the US media, has been celebrated as a champion for Asian-American representation in the American film industry.
The movie is largely set in Singapore and features Singaporean cast members along with other Asian actors and actresses. The production was supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Film Commission. The ‘Hollywood Reporter’ has reported that a sequel is already in the works.
This makes Kwan, who is in his mid-40s, the golden boy of the literary and film industry in Singapore. Yet, it seems he has a difficult relationship with his citizenship – and the Singaporean authorities have no reservations about reminding him of his tenuous connection to the country while he is in the limelight.
It is not clear whether Kwan still sees himself as a Singaporean, and whether, in light of the present situation, he may try again to renounce his citizenship and settle any issues with MINDEF and the Enlistment Act once and for all.
In a previous interview with Channel NewsAsia, Kwan said: “I really hope Singaporeans will see that [Crazy Rich Asians] is a love letter to Singapore… and I wanted to pay tribute to all types of Singaporeans.”
However, for all the love that Kwan professes for Singapore, it seems like he will not be able to return any time soon unless he wants to pen his next satirical bestseller from a prison cell – or perhaps while wearing camouflage.