Monday, December 05, 2005

In the end, we all lose

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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crackhead said...

good points! although i have to say that i feel a little hard done by. while Melvyn is happily playing is piano in London, people are suffering. don't tell me i got numerous extra duties and confinement (only 1) so that Melvyn can play his beloved piano? it is a bit unfair.

mr.udders said...

good job. very well-written and reasonable, but sadly, not everyone will react so rationally.

Agagooga said...

This is the "I suffered so everyone must too or I'll feel aggrieved" syndrome that Singaporeans, with their kiasu attitudes, tend to have.

When Slavery was reduced from 2 1/2 to 2 years, some people complained it was "unfair" to them - the same logic underlies both phenomena and contributes to the misery of the human condition.

ahdokboy said...

2 years? It's a year and 10 months.
Well I personally think that even if I had a choice I wouldnt skip NS, because nothing is worse than being away from your family and friends for so long.
You just have to try and beat the system, otherwise the system owns you.

Brandon said...

it's still 2 years for those poor chaps from PTP. like me.

but yeah great post; i think it's much better than those whiney forum letters that somehow reaffirm the popular notion that singaporean guys are whiners. thanks for the thoughts

Jack Chen said...

Very Singaporean perspective in writing: pragmatic, sincere, to the point, also rarely seen, courageous (cough*IS&*cough) with brutal honesty, You touch a chord in every servicemen's heart.

Yes, I did come away with a positive experience after NS. If you have been through HELL, everywhere else pales in comparison and you can find your own piece of heaven. Also spurred me on to get my academic qualifications, nothing beats wasting your life and knowledge in 2.5 years NS.

Firstly, I think the rethink on NS the past 5 years did a lot of good. Combat gear, rations, equipment are being changed and nowadays MP's are showing support for more transparency in our training procedures and safety. Sad that people have to die to get things changed.

Think of Singapore as this way, when they ignore the problem, it really gets ignored, no one will even know it existed. But when the government together with everyone starts pushing for it, things really move, I mean, they really take some bold steps forward once you convince them.

They need to rethink their training doctrine, the average education level of Singaporeans have increased, yes, not everyone can be officers, no space to squeeze everyone, but you don't have to treat lower ranking troops, especially us 'men' CPL and below like low IQ. Many of my fellow hokkien 'pengs' are getting their degrees, myself included and I mean MANY.

Those are untapped resources whom the country have forsaken and hoped that they will step up when war comes. C'mon, be realistic, that there is a 'Singaperth' tells you alot about how people feel. What about that movie they made of a 'retired commando' who tells everyone he is going to 'Perth' and I think the title is 'Perth'. If it was so implausible, many patriotic people 'aka officers and above' will have made noise. But nothing, we simply let everything go.

I would prefer they bring troop involvement to the next level. Get more involvement with men, feedback from everyone, not simply top-down. Information flow will be nice. I hate the lack of information from my commanders. Treat us as equals and you as our leader. DO NOT treat us as slaves or you will LIVE to REGRET your actions.

Find something of substance to occupy our time. I may not be an officer, but during NS, I secretly approached various platoons and the good friendly armorer to learn more of our weapons, procedures. I am not dumb, when everyone sleeps NEXT to their beds on the floor during the day, I was reading. Novels, paperbacks, manuals, war accounts, Combat magazines and *interesting* stuff from Internet. I also spend time discussing strategy, warfare, how to innovate weapons with those who are getting their degrees now. For example, 3 of them (engineers now) actually found a way around the Geneva convention on using only ball rounds, but SAF don't want to know about it, right?

Real example, my 3SG refuses to teach me how to operate a GPMG simply because 'wait they want you to help clean GPMG'. Eventually the PS did that, without training me to strip the GPMG, luckily I learned from my scouts and that I have Jane's Gun recognition guide along with other manuals found not in 'SAF'.

Cross Train people and show some recognition for their intelligence. We are not stupid bored men, but intelligent bored men stuck in camps. Let us do Uni courses part time to earn some credit points, they do that in USA.

I would like some honesty and honour from our people in the SAF. We have many 'core values' and these simply are echoed in our mouths but not in our hearts. Call a stick a stick. If it sucks, admit it, let's solve the problem together, simply blame the lower ranks and so on and so forth shows no genuine reflection and improvement. I posted a comment before, that CSM's don't simply hurl verbal abuse, they use them as learning tools, the more enlightened ones solve the root of the problem. Not simply scold you. Maybe you need more guidance.

Also ease up on the propaganda, I know the top brass are getting nervous, don't bombard us with one sided views on our things.

When the green packet combat rations first introduced, you know what the quotes I saw in Pioneer said!!

Then recently Pioneer had quoted some other new slaves blast the older style packets.

If they do those ABSD surveys entirely anonymously, I tell you, you would have thought the entire battalion was trying to raise a coup de'tat.

They need to improve and I am glad somone got the guts to point that out in this blog.

Good one Mr Chris Choo

I am with you on this one.

The Poor Traveller said...

each country has its fair share of woes in conscription and the military service.

what i'm worried about is, while much effort is still required to improve the treatment and training of NS soldiers, will the boys be able to think maturely, put aside their personal grievances and be "mean" enough to defend Singapore.

Jimmy said...

Good points. Totally agree.

Anonymous said...

Although this post is rather old, I feel inclined to post on this topic.

The point as raised are too optimistic of the citizens. My personal experience in the army is such that the people are not motivated to be soldiers because they do not see a necessity in protecting their way of life.

Our present generation have taken our privileges as citizens in this country for granted. There may be infringements on civil rights and liberties but it does not justify malingering and derelict of duty.

The grievances of poor commanders, are a result of singaporeans with horrible attitude being chosen to be sergeants and officers. It is not that as a commander, they do not treat their men well. Rather, they do not bother to go the extra mile to be a good commander.

The same applies to men. It is sad to be labeled as incompetent and unworthy of trust due to rank and academic achievements. However, it is an opinion formed most likely due to the behaviour of the majority and not the minority.

I speak from personal experience, as an observation of NSFs who are in the army. I am currently serving my NSF liability as a sergeant in the army.

Lim Wee Tong (StaN) said...

i would like to write a COA essay for this year. since u have written it b4, could u give me some advice on it? thanks

email me at