Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Setting A Price On National Service

Straits Times
Nov 20, 2005
Pianist pays NS dues - 28 years later
He is fined for defaulting on his NS after he decides to return, as his aged parents are finding it difficult to visit him in London

By Kristina Tom

AFTER staying away from Singapore for nearly 30 years because he defaulted on his national service, pianist Melvyn Tan has finally paid his dues.

Pianist evading National ServiceThe 49-year-old, who has lived in the United Kingdom for the last 37 years, has paid a fine for not fulfilling his national service duty and will be performing at the Esplanade next month.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, a visibly relieved Mr Tan said that he is glad to have put the past behind him.

He has not stepped onto Singapore soil all these years because he had feared that he would be arrested and thrown into jail.

But his 86-year-old father and 80-year-old mother are getting too old to make the regular trips to London to visit him at his home in Notting Hill, London.

So he decided to take a 'risk'. After informing the authorities of his intention to return, he came home in April for a court hearing.

The hearing lasted 30 minutes but he had never been so nervous in his life. 'It was very, very nerve-wracking,' he said.

To his relief, he was asked only to pay a fine.

He claims that he cannot remember the amount.

Under the Enlistment Act, those who evade national service can be fined up to $5,000 or sent to jail for up to three years, or both.

Although Mr Tan became a British citizen in 1978, he was still a Singapore citizen when he failed to fulfil his NS duties, making him answerable for the offence in a Singapore court.

In 1994, The Straits Times quoted a lawyer who said that one of his clients, a 39-year-old French citizen, was arrested at the airport on arrival, fined and made to complete nine months of training.

Mr Tan, who has an elder sister, was studying at Anglo-Chinese School when he left Singapore to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Sussex. He was then 12 years old.

After he finished his course, he stayed on in England to study at the Royal College of Music instead of coming home to serve national service in 1977.

He said: 'When I was at the Royal College and I got my final call-up, I was just on the brink of starting a career. I thought about it and thought about it and realised that I was not going to get this chance again.

'So I made that very difficult decision to not return. It meant I could never come back.'

Mr Tan first made his mark in the classical world with his performances on the 19th-century fortepiano, the precursor to the modern concert grand.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he produced a series of recordings that popularised the early music movement, regarded as a slightly eccentric niche within the music world.

He has about 30 recordings to his name and a regular touring schedule in Europe.

Along with Seow Yit Kin and Margaret Leng Tan, he has helped Singapore to gain recognition on the global piano scene.

The pianist is wasting no time in reconnecting with the Singapore music scene.

He goes back to England tomorrow, but will return early next month to sit on the jury of the National Arts Council's biennial National Piano and Violin Competition, which starts Dec 7 and ends Dec 18.

He said that he is getting to know Singapore, which he describes as 'unrecognisable', all over again. And, of course, he has been feasting on his favourite foods such as popiah.

But the best part about being able to come home as a free man was showing up at his mother's 80th birthday party on Thursday.

His parents still live in his childhood home in Lengkok Angsa, off Paterson Road. 'There were a few tears,' he said. 'She was just delighted. It was the best birthday present she's ever had.'

Singaporeans -- both on Internet forums and The Straits Times Forum pages -- gaped and raged at what they see as a punishment which makes a mockery of the country's NS policy. Journalist Ben Nadarajan wrote in the Sunday Times 27 Nov 2005: "So when someone chickens out of his duty, we expect him to be punished with something more painful than a mere blanket party. To see him get away with a mere fine, especially one which hardly burns a hole in his pocket, makes us wonder what we keep going back for. The fact that Tan cannot even remember how much he was fined -- when the court hearing was just six months ago -- suggests how insignificant it is to him."

A pathetic attempt to quench the understandable fury of Singapore men who dutifully served their time in Temasek Green, many of whom actually died in the course of serving National Service, was offered by officialdom in this response:

"All able-bodied male Singapore citizens are required to serve national service to contribute to the peace, security and stability of the country. Singaporeans enjoy the socio-economic benefits that this stability brings and are expected to shoulder the responsibility of national defence.

Mindef takes a serious stand on all defaulters who evade their national-service duty. Defaulters will have to bear the consequences of their action and will be dealt with by the courts under the Enlistment Act.

They are, on conviction, liable for an imprisonment term not exceeding three years or a fine not exceeding $5,000, or both. The exact sentence will be determined by the courts.

Besides having to answer to the courts for their national-service offences, defaulters will also have to serve their national service if they are still liable for national service.

In the case of Mr Melvyn Tan, although he had renounced his Singapore citizenship in 1978, he remained liable for the national-service offence and has been dealt with by the courts in accordance with the Enlistment Act.

Colonel Benedict Lim
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Defence "

Surrendering to the daily avalanche of accusations in the press that he received special treatment, Tan cancelled a sold-out concert and withdrew as a juror at the national piano and violin competition; he was replaced by Australian pianist Caroline Almonte.

In a letter published in The Sunday Times, Tan said he was "saddened and dismayed" by the controversy. "In light of the sentiments prevailing, I have decided it is best I defer my public appearances, for the debate on national service to continue without my further aggravating it," Tan wrote.

It is noteworthy that Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean had made it known he was "personally in favor of imposing custodial sentences for people who knowingly and deliberately evade national service."

National service of up to 2 1/2 years is compulsory for all male Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 16-40. Last year, the Defense Ministry said it would cut the required length by six months because military technology has improved.