The news about Melvyn Tan, his $5,000 fine for evading NS, and the subsequent deferment of his performance struck a chord in me. I'm not sure if others here share my sentiments, but I'll try to articulate them in the hope that this post inspires more thoughtful comments.
First off, let me state that I'm particularly pleased that Melvyn managed to beat the system. Kudos to him, having made his mark on the world stage, and getting fined a paltry $5,000. This amount is made even more insignificant considering that the wage rate in UK is pretty high. Like Mr Wang, I'm happy for people who beat the system and get away. I'm also happy for guys who only serve 2 yrs NS instead of 2.5, and am pleased that the NS experience has improved significantly over time. In fact, I think all NSmen ought to be happy because a large part of NS consists of very unpleasant memories that many of the soldiers today don’t have to go through. Only a sadist would want to inflict the same experience on subsequent batches of troops.
However, the next thought I have is one of sadness. I recall meeting people who AWOLed in NS. AWOL is a particularly stupid act because not only do these clowns serve a jail term, they still have to finish serving their original NS liability as well. It's deplorable, but does a $5,000 fine on a renowned pianist do justice to the AWOLed soldier who serves several months in DB? Regardless of the mitigating factors in Melvyn’s case such as dropping his Singapore citizenship, his emotional pain, and the fact that he returned to be sentenced, I think the light sentence is an injustice to those who suffered much harsher penalties. It’s also an injustice to the common NS man like you and me, who dutifully served NS. Does it mean I want Melvyn jailed? Well, maybe, but at the same time my mind goes "What the hell for? Leave the man alone!". So why the apparent contradiction?
Singapore Classics has a fairly good post about this issue, and the thought I found particularly meaningful was that not many guys enjoyed their NS, hence they felt that the emotional pain they suffered during this period far outweighed a simple $5,000 fine. As a result, the more sadistic guys want Melvyn jailed while some others want the penalty raised. But should we focus on the penalty at all? I think not.
Would we care if someone defaulted on NS if our guys truly enjoyed the experience? Not at all, and I think a large part of the problem is that NS is not a sufficiently nurturing environment, thus making the common soldier believe that he is simply wasting his time. Other countries deal with this slightly differently. For instance, in Taiwan, people take pride in serving their version of NS, and although a number of their citizens are exempted from NS altogether due to issues such as overseas education, nobody complains as vocally as Singaporeans in this case.
Next, we need to examine the outcomes of the case to determine if the situation is being handled well. The Sunday Times reported that Melvyn is deferring his performances due to the trouble he has caused, and Mindef is going to review the penalties for evading NS. This is a lose-lose situation and I think Singaporeans are worse off because of these decisions.
In my opinion Melvyn is completely justified in deferring his performances. It would be a blot on his career if people protested outside the Esplanade or booed him during his performance just because of this case. Such senseless acts would do him no good, and thanks to the uproar caused, Melvyn has no choice but to defer his performance to a time when Singapore has things settled. I hope that he comes back when the issue has blown over, because I am personally convinced that he wishes to contribute to the music scene here in some way. However, the fact that he has been forced by circumstances to cancel his performance is truly saddening. Singaporeans and Melvyn himself are poorer because of his decision.
The second bit is about Mindef considering increasing the penalty for evading NS. For the uninitiated, Singaporean males who have not served NS and wish to leave for overseas education need to place a $75,000 banker's guarantee or 50% of the combined household income, whichever is higher. This is one point that is inconsistent with the $5,000 maximum penalty that was levied on Melvyn, hence the review. But as I mentioned earlier, these penalties are put in place because NS is such a pain to Singaporeans, not because evading NS is intrinsically wrong.
As such, I believe that the solution lies in improving the lives of soldiers in NS to a point that it becomes immaterial whether a penalty is imposed on a defaulter or not. What Mindef needs to do is address the grievances of Singaporean males who are serving or have served their NS instead of thinking of how to punish them when they go AWOL.
Much more should be done about the personal development of the soldier. Is the typical NSF ready to move on in life after ORD? Is the welfare of an NSF looked after? Are our reservists treated well? Do our soldiers feel motivated about NS? Until these questions are properly addressed, people will continue baying for blood whenever somebody gets a good deal or manages to beat the system.
For instance, there is still a fair bit of resentment regarding PES classification. I am still disheartened that the rugby captain and vice-captain in my secondary school were PES C while I was considered PES B although I perpetually failed my NAPFA test. "Why are our fit soldiers getting away?" I thought. Well, the fact is that regardless of what Mindef tells you, a significantly large proportion of NSmen think of NS as a liability and want out in the simplest way possible.
Some of my unpleasant memories include going through immediate recourse in BMT because I failed my IPPT even after PTP and Enhanced BMT. Other things I would rather forget include the reasons behind some of my weekend duties, such as failing to read the CRO at the end of the day, or just mucking up a little during duty or in the course of the day. However, ultimately there were still some good experiences in my 2.5 yr stint that I will remember for life.
I got to shake the hand of the Chief of Army for a Commendation Award for writing some COA Essay Writing Competition. I managed to pick up a military Class 2B licence although my parents were very unhappy that I volunteered for the course. I managed to visit Australia during my first outfield exercise (with reservists no less! how LOBO!) It was also in NS that I sorted out my attitude towards academics and decided to work a little harder when I got into university, so from personal experience I believe there are a number of positives in NS that everybody comes away with. I’m sure most, if not all NSmen will have positive memories as well – each with their own stories, except that they hide it very well because Singaporeans are excellent at complaining.
To make a long story short, launching personal attacks on Melvyn Tan or increasing the penalty for NS evasion does not get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem lies in the culture of NS. It is something that must be improved before NS becomes a positive experience – not one fraught with bittersweet memories of defaulter’s parades, punishments, and the loss of 12 (or fewer) years of public education to the often-brainless activities conducted in-camp.
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