Friday, December 30, 2011

45 Years of National Service: NS defaulter's homecoming for National Museum concert

45 Years of National Service 1967-2012.
This blog will mark the 45th year of NS in 2012 with a series of articles on defence matters Singaporeans can relate to. Your story ideas are, of course, welcome.

In a year that will mark 45 years of National Service (NS) in Singapore, one of the first classical concerts for 2012 will feature a piano recital by someone whose name is inextricably linked to national disservice.

Yes, Singapore-born British pianist convicted NS defaulter, Melvyn Tan, is coming to town.

His case was mentioned in Parliament in January 2006. His name was flamed by netizens in numerous discussions on NS obligations for Singapore-born males.

And in a bizarre example of freaky coincidences, his name appeared in a membership recruitment advertisement by SAFRA, the government-linked club for Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) and full-time NSmen, in December 2005. Till today, I fail to see the humour of this ad. Maybe it's just me but I believe some defence issues are no laughing matter. The use of Melvyn Tan's name is a hideous example of black humour that parents of NSmen who gave their lives for their country will not find amusing. Please click on the image below and look at the name on the mock Safra card. It may have passed the spell check but the sanity check on this ad was sorely lacking.

Melvyn's homecoming next week, some six years after he triggered the most intense debate on NS defaulters in recent memory, is a timely reminder that time will heal most wounds. He has been elevated from the status of social pariah to a foreign talent courted by Singapore. Good for him.

Indeed, the newspaper article (see opening image) in the 29 December 2011 edition of the 90 cents newspaper sings praises to Melvyn without a single mention of his central role in triggering the debate on NS defaulters. The omission of this fact from an article published by a newspaper of record is interesting to mull over. He must be pleased as punch that his name now graces the national broadsheet under more cheerful circumstances.

Apparently forgiven by Singaporean authorities (because he has paid his fine?), forgotten by Singapore's mainstream media (because the writer did not check Newslink?) and overlooked by netizens who kicked up such a fuss in 2005, Melvyn is due to play at the National Museum of Singapore Exhibition Galleries. The duration of the event from 5 January to 27 January 2012 probably means he will be in Singapore to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his loved ones.

People who followed the Melvyn Tan saga probably recall that he was fined S$3,000 by a Singaporean civil court in 2005 for evading NS 28 years ago. The Tan family also forfeited the S$30,000 security deposit - in then-year dollars a princely sum - coughed up by Melvyn's parents in 1974 when he flew to London to study music.

When this amount of money is spread over a 10-year training cycle that most NSmen undergo and with the 2.5 years of full-time NS factored into the calculus, the penalty that the system extracted from the Tan family is in my opinion a small price to pay. It works out to a sum of S$2,640 a year for every year of NS Melvyn avoided, or just S$220 a month. Pocket change for well-heeled Singaporean families.

In exchange for this fine, the media attention and (apparently transient) cyberspace notoriety, Melvyn kept 2.5 years of his youth (NS was reduced to two years of full-time service in 2004) and was spared the kind of training Singaporean males are put through to keep the city-state safe.

While he chased his dream in London in flagrant disregard for his promise to return to serve NS, his loved ones back home slept safe and sound under the security umbrella carried aloft by every Singaporean son who answered the call to serve their country. His parents will never know the anguish that Singaporean families - especially mothers - experience when their sons and loved ones enter NS.

It is cruel comfort to families of NSmen who died that a defaulter ended up losing a hefty bond and fined by the system. In the past 45 years, a sizeable number of teenage soldiers and middle aged NSmen have died in the course of duty, each one an irreplaceable loss to a society whose birth rate is rapidly in decline.

If Melvyn really wants to put the past behind him, perhaps he could dedicate his performance to the NSmen who died serving their nation while he was away. It would inject meaning to his performance in a year in which Singaporeans will be reminded of how generations of NSmen have served with pride, dedication and distinction.

There must be pockets of Singapore's expatriate community with Singapore-born sons in the same boat as Melvyn who have calculated the possible impact of evading NS. All sorts of schemes and means will be tapped to keep their sons out of uniform. Some families may look at his imminent homecoming with relief and a sense of assurance that the system is able to forgive and apparently forget as grave a transgression as running away from the Singapore Armed Forces.

The Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) had better update its tip sheet for National Education discussions on "The Case of Melvyn Tan" because scheming minds may conclude that the price of defaulting NS isn't that onerous afterall.

It appears that if one pays the penalty for defaulting NS, then the system and Singaporean society will someday forgive, forget and say: let's move on.


DK said...

Wow, this is a complete mockery of the NS system. Thanks for spotting it.

contrarian said...

This is one instance when I can't agree with you. You mention only the financial penalty of the sanction, but did not mention the other costs which included keeping out of the country until he was past the enlistment age, and giving up his citizenship.

At 36, I am still going through the NS cycle. But I will, in your words, "forgive and forget" those defaulters who leave and stay out until they are beyond the age of 40.

David Boey said...

Dear contrarian,
Universality of opinion on this blog is neither sought-after nor important to me.

I value the time and effort that many of you have taken to share your feedback on issues raised here. By sharing your point of view, you contribute to the discussion and help everyone realise that there are many ways to see the same picture.

Re: The Case of Melvyn Tan. Internet discussions years ago in 2005 have commented on the offence of NS evasion and the subsequent penalty, of which the fine and loss of bond are specific, measurable and cannot be disputed (i.e. S$33,000 in total). Google has captured some of these viewpoints.

What is contentious is whether Melvyn got off lightly. This is what sparked off the uproar six years ago.

He could have come home anytime and need not have surrendered his Singapore citizenship.

Instead, his career was built up in London - an astute choice. Remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore's arts scene was not as vibrant or developed as the one you see today with the Esplanade and high level commitment to the arts.

If 40 is the new 30s, Melvyn has a good 20+ years of economically active life ahead of him.

His appearance at next week's National Museum concert crystallises the deepest fears and suspicions of the discussions in 2005/2006 - that he got off lightly for evading NS.

Is tax payer's money used to stage this concert? I wish someone would tell us.

Are the adverse consequences for NS defaulters that MINDEF talks about applicable only to men of NS liable age? Are these only monetary? So if a person calibrates his career trajectory properly, he could some day return with no social stigma at all?

If I could ask Melvyn one question, it would be simply this:"Why did you choose not to serve?"

I believe his reply would contribute substantially to us understanding why people run away from NS. It is only by having a good sense of ground sentiments that we can build a better system.

Happy New Year.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

RE: If I could ask Melvyn one question, it would be simply this:"Why did you choose not to serve?"

It might not be too hard to fathom why. For him, and I dare say many others who have also filed the bond for deferment, and went abroad to complete their education prior to NS, it could have been a simple rational choice of not interrupting his professional education.

The only bee in the bonnet here is that he decided not to return after his deferment period. He made his choice, and chose to live with the consequences of "exile" for decades, not being able to come home. That itself is punishment enough because the roots of origin have been denied for decades though threat of punishment.

He's made it now. Singapore has gained a top-class son. He's come back, paid his fine according to the law and has been punished, let it go.

Anonymous said...

Well done David for bringing this topic, i serve my NS and also serve as a regular in the training Wing, what NS is about is the "bonding during the sweat and tears,
if he choose "exile" and came back as "hero" yes it is a mockery to the system, even worse for an event mark for "NS"! So have money can escape NS?

Kojakbt said...

Bro, good article which I think it will resonate with Singaporeans. Can I have your permission to republish this on TR Emeritus?

Anonymous said...

I have never forgotten the Melvyn Tan saga and also that of our current President's son. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, conveniently swept under the carpet. I know of long term PRs whoe sons rejected NS but are still in our local universities NOW. How does the government account to the thousands of NS men/families who scarificed their time, opportunities and energy in the name of national defense. NS has no meaning to me anymore and I will think of ways and means for my son to skip NS. NS for locals, jobs/scholarships for foreigners, it certainly ring very true.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing how much weight you are giving NS as if NSmen were out there fighting an actual war everyday defending our country. It's cute.

The truth is that NS is a massive waste of human talent. We as a country would have been much better off if we didn't waste prime years of our best and brightest on a braindead grind. Even the government understands this when it chooses to send PSC scholars overseas before they are lobotomized by the NS machine.

If the government wants to promote creativity and entrepreneurship in preparation for a future where brainless white-collared automatons are not enough for maintaining the country's edge, then abolishing NS is the most concrete step it can make. Who has time to risk being an entrepreneur when you are already 2 years late to the game?

Anonymous said...

Imagine if every family has the money and chooses to default on their sons' NS obligation by paying off the required fines and security bonds, what will happen to Singapore's national defence? I equate Melvin as a traitor rather than a "hero" regardless of how others may view him. It appears highly advantageous to be rich and famous in Singapore as the country's systems seem to be more lenient towards them.

Anonymous said...

"The truth is that NS is a massive waste of human talent.". Is that so?

Anyone with such thinking must have taken national security for granted. Why did the British Army remained in Singapore after it separated from Malaysia if her national security was never an issue at all? We cannot assume Singapore forever is safe from foreign aggression. The frequent skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia over such a trivial matter as who should "own" the old Preah Vihear temple is a stark reminder of the criticality of national defence. The invasion of Kuwait was practically a 'walk in' exercise for the late Saddam Hussein because of the latter's relatively weak armed forces. Without NS, how many foreign investors you think will be willing to invest their monies in Singapore. The issue of NS should be seen in a broader perspective than simply based on individual aspirations and preferences.

Anonymous said...

National Service in 1974 was very different to NS in 2011. The treatment and training then was so much tougher. Torture and ill treatment was not uncommon. Our trainers were from Isreal no less. No such thing as welfare. Our boys have it good now

It could be argued if he had come back to serve in 1974, he might not be the world class pianist that he is today, unable to fulfill his full potential.

$30,000 in 1974 was no small amount. One could buy a brand new 5 room HDB flat then and still have change to do the renovation

Do not use today's standard to pass judgement on something that happened in 1974. It was a different world, a different time then

Anonymous said...

"I find it amusing how much weight you are giving NS as if NSmen were out there fighting an actual war everyday defending our country. It's cute."

This guy probably didn't know between 70's to 90's there are times when we were at near conflict situation if not for NS.

Those serving between 1986 to 1992 in the Combat Bn knew well, I was a regular then when at those years , had to sleep with my boots on every now & then.

Anonymous said...

Yes, perhaps Melvin should be tarred, feathered and branded on the forehead with a cattle brand.

But, seriously the law should be changed and backdated to provide for a two months jail term for all such 'returnees'. That 'having money is not enough'!

Anonymous said...

yeah, right? 30 K is a lot of monies. what a joke!
brand new 5 room in 1974? provided hdb build that and you win the lottery for flats first. that you cannot control. price is just a way to ensure you can own the flat and mbt isn't there to drive hdb prices mad yet.

Anonymous said...

Just boycott his concert, even he wins the Nobel Prize lah.

Anonymous said...

let us all attend to MT's concert at the National Museum from 5th-27th January in our old green combat uniforms to show him what he is missing in life.

Anonymous said...

I will consider discuss this matter at the Meet The People session...hopefully the matter can be more transparent

Adrian Kwong said...

TODAY, 18th January, 2006

Allowing rich kids to buy their way out isn’t fair on the rest Letter from
Adrian Kwong
I refer to the proposed review of penalties for defaulting on one’s NS
obligations, “No dodging this draft” (Jan 17).
What is wrong with the Melyvn Tan case is that the time one spends in
National Service (NS) cannot simply be equated to a monetary fine.
To make that link cheapens the entire system of NS, as well as the debt
that society owes to each NSman.
For many Singaporean men, as the army song goes, NS is about serving “once
in a life, two years of our time”.
One does what must be done, and gets it out of the way.
I admit I am not sure I would have chosen to do NS if I had had a choice
of paying “liquidated damages”.
I am sure I could have made better use of the time if I was not required
by law to put on the uniform. Who wouldn’t want an extra two years’
headstart in job seniority, income and free time?
But NS is not about choices or doing what is convenient for you. NS is
about sacrificing one’s civilian freedoms, delaying one’s education or
career or life-goals, to do what must be done for the greater good.
It may traditionally have been done under threat of prosecution, but I get
ahead of myself.
In a system where every able-bodied Singaporean man (to date, probably
something like 700,000 of us) does his duty at and for the appointed time,
everyone of us enjoys the benefits knowing that the burden is shared
fairly equally.
However, when some can choose not to participate because they are better
endowed financially, the system breaks down.
Why should I sacrifice two years of my time, if a cost-benefit analysis
tells me I could make more money simply paying the fine while I work in a
better-paying civilian job?
Given that the average monthly household income in 2003 was $4,867, it
should be fairly obvious that even a $20,000 fine could be easily earned
back in less time than the two-year NS period.
Worse, making NS evasion as simple as paying a fixed fine obviously
favours the well-off over the less well-off.
That’s in contrast to the element of social equity – akin to progressive
income tax – in the current system of making the overseas-bound would-be
enlistee’s parents forfeit either a fixed sum or a multiple of their
yearly income.
I see no way in which simply increasing the fine sends the right message.
What is a “serious case” anyway? How is a mere fine for most cases a
sufficient deterrent? In an increasingly affluent society, a fine is a
limp slap on the wrist, whether that wrist belongs to a concert pianist or
Personally, I would argue for a mandatory jail sentence equal to the
period of NS evaded.
In the absence of a mandatory jail sentence, there would be a serious
inconsistency in that a conscientious defaulter (such as a follower of the
Jehovah’s Witness religious group) would generally serve a sentence in the
SAF detention barracks longer than his actual full-time NS liability,
while someone who simply refused to serve and fled the country before
coming back at age 40, would still have his two years of freedom.
I urge the Government to consider the message it is sending by this move.

Anonymous said...

He is but one of those who 'got away' with a light penalty, but think about those who studied medicine who also managed to defer their NS until much later and serving a much more comfortable line than most of us. That screams 'UNFAIR'. Perhaps Melvyn can make it up by doing ICT? There are people serving ICT till 50.

Mel Lee said...

"I find it amusing how much weight you are giving NS as if NSmen were out there fighting an actual war everyday defending our country. It's cute."

whoever you are, shame on you. you probably didnt know what NS is all about and probably wished you did what Mr Melvyn Tan did. NS was in all likelihood a waste of your 2 plus years of yr life...

Lim C K said...

Whatever it is, he should not be invited to perform. He blatantly disregard the Singapore's Government policy on compiulsory NS for all male citizens who reached the age of 18 yrs. I have 2 sons who served the National Service and belief you me, it was really tough. He had gotten out with a paltry fine which is 'UNFAIR'. What's there for him to showcase in his music? We have other musicians as capable, so what difference does it make to have him come back as a foreign talent? We don't need such man made foreign talent in Singapore. What's in his thought to come here to perform? A country which he abandon. It's a mockery of the NS policy and foreign talents policy!! May the people who invite him to perform, please WAKE UP!!!!

Anonymous said...

Simple, reform the NS system to that of South Korea's. Flexible enlistment age to allow citizens who are involved in music and sports to enlist later and serve reservist duties till a later age. Fairer for all.

If a nation technically at war can do so, I don't see how we can't do it. Before anyone uses KATUSA as a counter-argument, might I just say that KATUSA forces are not the majority of the personnel keeping watch over South Korea, nor USFK. It is still the ROK Armed Forces.

Something worth pondering, no?

Anonymous said...

Following on .. to ensure real love for the nation, and improve the citizenry's views and acceptance for NS, flexibility in enlistment cannot be ignored. It's tough to impose patriotism, but it can be made to grow slowly when people feel there is greater variation in how they can serve their nation.

Service to nation, ownership of this nation, will give us long-term benefits in making our population more aware of what they have to defend. Make your citizens want to defend what they have, allow them a wider variety of enlistment options to suit different strokes of folks which may give us happier, more hardworking soldiers.

Many here have displayed a lot of emotion and passion over NS, and that is heartening though. NS is about protecting the state, and the state is still made up of individuals like you and I.

Anonymous said...

Lots of sour grapes here! I served 2.5 years too so what? If he sustained injury to his hands in NS, losing the opportunity to reach his potential, maybe you'll think its fair? Just because you can't climb to the top, don't envy those who can

I say good on him for doing what he did! For this warm and loving government will not give a rat's ass had he been hurt during NS back in 1974

Anonymous said...

I am completing my 10 year cycle and has volunteered for another 5 years with possibly more to come. I am 31 and proud to continue serving my Singapore beyond what is required of me. I do not need Melvyn Tan, we do not need Melvyn Tan, my Singapore does not need Melvyn Tan.

Anonymous said...

NS is not merely 2 or 2.5 years. The 10 or 13 years of reservist liability may be a much bigger commitment to many, particularly as we strive to balance our career and family commitments. I am past 40 and I am still doing my reservist. It takes a lot of my time each year, not just the IPPT or the ICT or even the many half or one day sessions, but much of work or spare time spent on phone and computer. And I am not even a CO. Can I also add that much time is spent or wasted coping with or fighting MINDEF bureaucracy. Why I do this? Do I have a choice? It is my duty imposed by the law and by our sense of responsibility to the people we serve with. For all the commitments that all of us NSmen or NSF put in, we do deserve far more recognition that what MINDEF gives. Even the NSRA is quite pathetic partly because of the CPF nature of payment and partly of the small sum involved relative to our loss of income opportunity outside. Worst of all, we hear how this govt let people like Mervyn Tan get off with the token fine and a whole lot of PRs getting off even more easily (eg renounce PR easily and then come back to live and work in Sg again). It is insulting to all of us who have to serve and also to persuade our subordinates that they have to serve. MINDEF must get its act together and stop allowing exceptions to the rule and stop letting people pay their way out of NS. The other way is to grant really substantial benefits to NSmen and I mean really substantial benefit such as no income tax liability at all. MINDEF has to show that it really respects the commitments of NSmen by providing substantial recognition that everyone (citizens and non citizens alike) will recognise as substantial. If they continue to give such paltry recognition to the issues, they cannot blame any decline in attitude among those serving.

Anonymous said...

I don't blame Melvyn Tan. He has the right to make his choices and who are we to even judge his decisions? If you need someone to account of this, hold MINDEF and the Civil Court responsible for letting him off so lightly.

Anonymous said...

If you do not know the full story behind his defaulting, please keep your views to yourself.

At the time of his studies, he was one of 4 bright young Singaporean pianists studying in London/Europe. The other 3 being Seow Yit Kin, Ong Lip Tat, and Koh Joo Ann. Due to connections and being related to politicians, the other 3 were granted EXEMPTION from national service. Melvyn was always thought to be the most promising of the 4.

Is he the only one who has ever defaulted from national service? And for all the hypocrites out there, I'm sure you'd all gladly default if money wasn't an issue.

Anonymous said...

I served the army from 2007 to 2009 in Armour.

Despite that, i am in complete support of Melvyn's decision to default on the army. international renown, and as well as letting the world know that he's a singaporean pianist, is enough to pay back his dues to the nation.

these two years, is an absolute waste of any singaporean male's time, and like many, i rotted in my unit, doing as little as i could, and stayed out of trouble.

Tan Ah Kow said...

FXXk the defaulter. And who the fxxk was the judge that awarded the S$3000 fine - not even a custodial sentence??

So the defaulter wants the stage in a land that he chose not to defend. Don't you have any shame at all???

Anonymous said...

I would countenance forgiveness if he had found a way to turn sea water into fuel, grow crops in the desert or create meaningful and lucrative jobs/lives for all Singaporeans. But music? whose short of music?

David Boey said...

Proceed. Pse include link to this blog.

Anonymous said...

To those who love serving NS and ICT and want to volunteer, good for you. Continue serving NS on volunteer terms on poor pay and help the men dig holes outfield every week during training and clean your rifle every night. Don't pretend to be some patriotic citizen if you are some officer strutting about in your tent and getting ferried around in a landrover - that is not really that tough. Two years in NS may not mean that much a big deal, but a 10-year ICT cycle can be very inconvenient if you are trying to build a career at the same time. Besides, ICT is not just about a short 1 or 2 weeks a year. They also do recalls, suddenly call you back for parades or special events - like the CO wants to talk to everyone.

Jason Ong said...

Love it or hate it - NS is necessary. what this whole discussion really boils down to is integrity, accountability and being responsible.

for melvyn tan to get away "scot free" stains the honour of the uniform of those who have served and in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice. how do we answer to their parents, spouses, children etc?

i hv faithfully served my NS and ICT in an infantry battalion and lets face it - all of us hv commitments, so what makes melvyn tan so special? i recall having known hokkien peng who are the only child of single widowed parents. i know of one who wanted to AWOL to help his mother at her hawker stall but was couselled to grit his teeth and bear it all. had he AWOL-ed, he wld hv been thrown into DB! fast forward 20 yrs, we've all MR-ed and proud tt we stuck to our guns.

the fact that melvyn tan is back in spore again for the 2nd/3rd time is to me, an insult to all of us who hv donned the uniform....

Paidmytaxes said...

National security is a public good. in other words the capitalist free market system will fail to provide for it, and hence people have to be conscripted to perform this service.

In short: it is a Tax.

and like all taxes, the basic assumption behind the economic (especially OUR economic) principles of self interest are that most will attempt to avoid, and some will evade. (for the uninitiated, technically avoid = creative but still legal means of reducing one's tax obligations, and evade = illegal means of doing so)

That is why this tax has to be enforced under threat of incarceration; everybody but the most misty eyed naivetes will know that a volunteer army will be badly understaffed. The purpose of this threat is to make it, purely from the process of weighing self-interest based pros and cons, not worth your while to evade it. An implicit assumption of this is that if people had the werewithal, the gall, or otherwise any capacity to do what Melvin Tan did. They Would.

To romanticise NS and bring up things like "sweat and blood" and "bonds" is thus plain naive. It's like asking our million dollar a year ministers to serve for free out of their fervent patriotic spirit.

In summary: leaving the moralising out of the question has allowed me to see that the system is designed such that for most people, its not worth the risk to evade NS. As with all systems, however, once in a blue moon a Melvyn Tan will come along, and his balance sheet all thigns considered will make his decision a justifiable one to himself. So administratively speaking, his penalty was too light. Not because it was "unethical", "an insult to NSmen" or "unfair on NSmen", but simply because it has failed in its role to provide a deterrent.

David Boey said...

"At the time of his studies, he was one of 4 bright young Singaporean pianists studying in London/Europe. The other 3 being Seow Yit Kin, Ong Lip Tat, and Koh Joo Ann. Due to connections and being related to politicians, the other 3 were granted EXEMPTION from national service. Melvyn was always thought to be the most promising of the 4." - Anonymous 31 Dec'2011 8:36 PM

The claim posted above is new to me.

Had we known or been given an inkling, it would have been reflected in the 90 cents newspaper's story in Jan 2006 when Melvyn's case was mentioned in Parliament. If you check Google or the Nat'l Library archives, you'll find that I was the one who wrote the story.

Please email me. Am keen to find out more.

Best Regards,


Kojakbt said...


Anonymous said...

For those who choose to forgive and forget, it is their choice. But do you know that Melvyn Tan is one of the lengthiest defaulters and yet what he got is a miserly fine.

There are countless defaulters with very much lesser period and was sent to jail, and still had to serve their NS obligation thereafter if they are below 40.

Those who have renounce their citizenship without serving their NS are blacklisted from employment in Singapore.

Melvyn Tan is a musician, why is he allow to perform here?

What we want is fairness and this case is hardly so.

Anonymous said...

Actually, what would you all have him do instead? Not return to perform at all? He is not obliged to do that and don't think he needs the Singapore audience to be more famous you know?

jason ong said...

maybe David Boey's latest blog entry will remind us all that whether we like it or not, NS is here to stay. You want to push yourself or "keng" for those 2 plus yrs, it's your choice.

maybe for those who question NS/ICT and its worth and what this dialogue is all about, read this and spare a thought to the parents, spouses, loved ones etc who lost their sons/husbands/boyfrens/brothers during NS.

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