Friday, March 22, 2013
Striking the right note with Singaporeans on National Service
A strange coincidence took place on the day our elected representatives gathered to debate why the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should command the lion's share of Singapore's Budget.
On 11 March, the Minister for Defence and Singapore's most famous draft dodger were newsmakers in the mainstream media, but one got more positive coverage than the other. Guess which one?
Dubbed "King of keyboards", convicted draft dodger Melvyn Tan is living proof that time can heal most ills. In Melvyn's case, the severe public backlash he earned for failing to serve full-time National Service (NS) in 2005 seems to have been forgiven, indeed forgotten.
From social pariah, the Singapore-born British pianist is now acclaimed for the musical talent that saw him put career before serving his country in the 1970s. From headline to the last full stop, there was no mention of Melvyn's his brush with the law that ignited debate among heartlanders over the price of NS in 2005.
In that year, Melvyn was fined S$3,000 by a Singaporean civil court in 2005 for evading NS 28 years ago. His parents, who bankrolled his flight to London to study music before he served NS, also forfeited the S$30,000 security deposit. The court case saw Melvyn bear the brunt of Singaporeans unhappy over the apparent ease with which NS can be evaded.
Fast forward to 2013. the 90 cents newspaper's concert review praised the pianist with lofty catch phrases which Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen would quite possibly have appreciated during when he stood in Parliament arguing the need for, and importance of, a credible defence posture.
If NS draft dodgers ever needed a poster boy, Melvyn would be it.
The uncanny coincidence where a convicted draft dodger basked in positive press on the same day our Defence Minister had to mount a vigorous defence for MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against naysayers brings us to the heart of the Defence budget debate - the citizen soldier.
Rhetoric versus reality
Just as Singaporeans have been reminded time and again never to take peace and security for granted, neither should MINDEF/SAF take the commitment of its NSmen for granted.
With an overwhelming majority in the House, it was clear from the start that the debate on defence spending was one MINDEF/SAF would win decisively.
But it cannot be assumed that MINDEF/SAF can win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans on defence matters just as easily. In recent months, Singapore's NS system has suffered collateral damage from unhappiness over immigration, assorted population issues and *please fill in your pet peeve*.
The fact that the ground is not sweet is not helped by apparent own goals in defence public relations.
When people who evaded NS prove that they can emerge successful in their chosen field, right here in the Lion City, MINDEF has to show that its sabre-rattling against draft dodgers is more than hollow rhetoric.
Dr Ng sounded just such a note of caution when he spoke to the media on the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. He said:"If you are not prepared to do national service, do not become a PR."
He added:"It is a very clear message. Because in our system, if you do not fulfil your NS liabilities, you cannot just pay a fine. The penalties are very severe, and it is way beyond monetary penalties."
Remember that when Melvyn left for Britain, he wasn't a world-class talent. Just a talented teen whose musical potential blossomed decades later.
Enter Singov and its statements to the contrary, which indicate that defaulters cannot simply pay a fine, which hint that they may not be able to work in Singapore and warnings of severe penalties.
Melvyn's case exposes the difference between rhetoric and reality. If one makes good in one's chosen field and becomes world-class, then the possibility of re-acceptance by society is always there. (This begs the question what would happen to Joe Ordinary who defaults and pays the penalty but never made it big in anything.)
Am certain Singaporeans have chanced upon real-life examples of individuals who cheated the NS system, and were not whalloped with penalties as severe as those Dr Ng spoke of. If their fears are unwarranted, MINDEF/SAF needs to debunk these with a credible defence.
If critics are barking up the wrong tree, then a reasoned, rationale response that puts both outspoken minority and silent minority at ease on NS matters is something Singaporeans are waiting to hear. Afterall, parents who entrust their sons to Singapore hail from both camps.
The ease with which Melvyn has been accepted by Singaporean society and is now a media darling may embolden more draft dodger to conclude that the shock and awe promised by the DM isn't that bad afterall.
Just look at how the 90 cents newspaper wrapped up its gushing review of Melvyn's performance:"In response to sustained applause from the deeply appreciative audience, Tan obliged an encore of Debussy's Clair De Lune. The contrasts and similarities with the earlier lunar-inspired work by Beethovan were not lost, and Tan showed why he continues to be so greatly admired and loved by audiences around the world."
Admiration and love won by Melvyn King-of-keyboards Tan is precisely what National Service in Singapore needs to ensure long-term commitment to defence.
Posted by David Boey at 10:16 PM