Nov 20, 2005Mr Wang will state his personal opinion straightaway - I think this was a reasonable sentence. If I were the judge, I would have probably imposed a similar sentence. At most, I think I would have given a few days of imprisonment.
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.
The 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.'
There are plenty of grounds to justify such a sentence. Firstly Melvyn Tan had voluntarily surrendered himself to the authorities and then pleaded guilty in court. Now as a legal principle of sentencing, criminals who voluntarily surrender and then plead guilty in court generally get a lighter sentence. Melvyn chose to surrender and plead guilty in a situation where he could very easily have evaded arrest forever (by simply not returning to Singapore). So in his case, his voluntary surrender and guilty plea count as particularly significant mitigating factors.
Secondly, the reason why he chose to surrender (so as to be able to be with his aged parents) also deserves some sympathy. Mr Wang has a heart even if Mr Miyagi doesn't.
Thirdly, the fact that the offence was committed such a long time ago also, in my view, is another reason to impose a less-severe sentence. For an offence like this, I am not very convinced that there is that much purpose in punishing an almost-senior citizen for something he did more than half his lifetime ago, when he was a teenager.
Fourthly, one should consider the sentencing considerations that would typically apply to a case of an NS defaulter. The primary sentencing consideration would be the need for general deterrence - that is to say, if the court imposed a severe sentence, it would do so primarily with the intention of deterring other Singaporeans from committing the same kind of offence. However, Melvyn Tan's case is probably quite different from what the average NS defaulter's case would be, so there can't be that much deterrent value in imposing a heavier sentence in this particular case. I don't think that Melvyn's case is likely to persuade the average 14-year-old or 15-year-old male Singaporean today to start hatching any escape plans.
The fifth point to note is that your average NS defaulter, with no special mitigating factors at all, is probably not going to get more than six months' imprisonment anyway. So don't let the three years' maximum sentence possible under the law deceive you. As I've previously explained, the maximum possible sentences for most crimes are hardly ever imposed - the practical reality is that the average sentence imposed in the average case for most offences is well below the legal maximum.
A sixth point is a particular kind of argument that defence lawyers frequently raise, in one form or another, in different kinds of criminal cases. Personally, I don't particularly buy this particular kind of argument, but it's pretty common anyway, and I am quite sure that Melvyn's lawyer would have raised it as well. The general idea is that the criminal's own act had in itself caused him some suffering, so would the judge please take this consideration, since the accused has in effect already punished himself to some degree. In Melvyn's case, the argument would go something like this - for all these long years, poor old Melvyn has been unable to come to Singapore to visit his dear parents, relatives etc, and this in itself is already a kind of punishment, so would the judge please take this into consideration and impose a lesser kind of sentence. Not particularly convincing to me, but as I said, a fairly common kind of argument raised by defence lawyers.
There are a couple of other points that Mr Wang can see - relating to the circumstances under which Melvyn Tan committed the offence. But perhaps more later, Mr Wang needs to go check on his little children now. Bye ...
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