25 November 2005

The NS-Defaulting Pianist

So some famous pianist defaulted on his NS obligations decades ago. Recently he came back to Singapore and was fined $5000 for the offence. Mr Wang has learned that some Singaporeans have gotten into a tizzy about the sentence, believing it to be too lenient. Takchek was hoping that I would comment on this case, so I will. First, the ST report:
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.

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.'
Mr 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.

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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Kiah Shen said...

Hey. One of us managed to escape. Shouldn't we be glad? Way to go pianist!

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

On usual sentences for NS defaulters, well, they do not normally serve a very long sentence anyway because after they complete their sentence, they are still required to do the full length of their NS liability. For example, if I default at the start, I may serve three months in prison and then after that, I would serve the full 2 years anyway.

JWs are treated differently because you know that they wouldn't be doing anything at all if they had to do NS. Their religious beliefs prohibit them from carrying arms etc. So their prison sentence is increased accordingly to reflect the total amount of time they would have served in full-time NS + reservist duty. Hence their prison sentence of 2.5/3 years (approximately representing full-time NS liability plus the usual 2 weeks per year till age 40). After the 2.5/3 years, they don't do their NS anymore.

Also you may be surprised to know this, but there are certain principles of law which frown on prosecution being undertaken or heavy sentences being imposed, if the alleged offence was committed a long time ago. It is a fundamental principle of law that the system should seek to hear and dispose cases quickly and efficiently (simply not fair to have a charge hanging over your head indefinitely, preventing you from getting on with your life).

The inequity you perceive is due to the fact that you are comparing Melvyn Tan's case to the case of an average male Singaporean serving NS. "It's not fair that I spent 2.5 years of my life doing NS and this guy avoids it and just pays a $5K fine." Sentencing, however, is a lot more complex and fluid than that. There are several other possible and tenable ways to consider the matter.

For example, one reason to impose a heavy sentence on an NS defaulter would be to deter him from committing the same kind of offence again in future. If this is the usual consideration that drives the judge's mind, then there is no reason to impose a heavy sentence in this case. That's because there's no need to deter Melvyn from defaulting on his NS obligations. He has none - he stopped being a Singapore citizen more than 25 years ago.

Another reason to impose a heavy sentence on an NS defaulter would be to deter others from committing the same kind of offence again. Again I don't believe that a heavy sentence in Melyvn's case achieves any useful value of this sort. NS liability has already ended / is almost ending, for his peers. And seriously I don't think that any young 16-year-old male Singaporean planning to leave Singapore for good to pursue some higher aspiration overseas is going to calculate very extensively what might happen 30 years later when he wants to visit his aged parents.

Beach-yi said...

NS is just plain stupid alright. WHile some can use it productively in a positive manner, most just grit through it, coming out not much better than before they go in.

I bet my ass that if that pianist had went through NS, he would most likely ended up with the likes of Najip Alis, Gurmit SInghs and Jack Neos...all well known local artistes but not world famous.

The fact of the matter is that NS wastes our time. Sure come out with your arguments on the need for defence, but just look at the of the affairs in th estates that are deemed to be of potential threat, their armed forces are mostly for maintaining order internally. NS NS, national slavery?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I should provide a broader perspective on this.

Actually, if Melvyn had the option, he probably would not done the illegal thing and defaulted on the NS obligation. He would have renounced his Singapore citizenship before he turned 18, so that he legally does not need to serve NS, and then he would have left Singapore for good to pursue his musical career overseas. And if this had been done, you would probably have no grounds for complaint.

However, our silly Singapore constitution forbids male Singaporeans from renouncing their citizenship until they turn 21. Effectively this imposes the NS obligation on all of them, since enlistment is at age 18. Furthermore, Article 128 of the Singapore Constitution says that the government can disallow you from renouncing your citizenship unless you've finished your NS.

In other words, if you happen to born a male Singaporean, the laws effectively impose an NS obligation even if you had left Singapore at the age of 1 month and your parents had never brought you back and you never have seen Singapore and you never want to live here and you don't have a single relative in this country. And if you do not then fulfill your NS obligation, then like Melvyn you become a criminal by default.

Silly, isn't it. Turkey has a much more sensible system - either you serve your NS or, if you refuse, you lose your citizenship. That means you lose all benefits of being a Turkish citizen, which I think is reasonable.

There IS one reason why this system may not work in Singapore, though. Kekekee. Citizens hardly have very many significant benefits to speak of. I'd rather be a foreign talent here actually. Heheh.

singaporean said...

I wanted to mention the JWs too, but seems like it is covered already. You may like to know that some ten years back, there is a vegetable plot in front of the SAF Detention Barracks where the JW detainees spend their time ... growing vegetables with little supervision - they get to walk in and out of the DB relatively freely...obviously they wont run. Doesnt get any more cooperative than that. Still have to serve 3 years, no less.

It's even sillier for the JWs who converted only after NSF: every reservist call up = 40 days DB.

Considering the size of the bond required to postpone NS for overseas studies: IIRC 100k or sum of the parents's annual salary, whichever higher. Considering the financial losses even if the average NSF who could otherwise only flipped burgers for 8 hours a day for two and a half years. Consider the poor families plunged into financial hardships when their breadwinners are forced to serve NS. And then consider the fat fat fat amounts of money splurged on "foreign talents" to study in Singapore (and then leave without serving) while Singaporeans have to borrow beg steal rob to make ends meet.

The 5k fine is a stinking insult.

Mr Wang is right. Singapore citizenship is not worth a bucket of spit. Singapore citizenship is a liability.

Singaporean men. Elections are coming. Make the elitists hear your voices.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

The JWs don't run because they consider their time in detention barracks as martyrdom. They're suffering for God, so that's a good thing, from their point of view. In DB, they are used to provide services for other prisoners - they do the laundry, haircutting, cooking etc.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang is right. Singapore citizenship is not worth a bucket of spit. Singapore citizenship is a liability(a pain in the ass).

Dsmn right about that.Born here and you are ass-fukked for 2.5 years.And with the "i die u must also die" mentality of MOST singaporeans who dare not even rebuke back at what i have written , i can say most of them are either with me ,against NS or have no balls at all.

Wake up, fight or flight !

If its not a Democracy , it must be Dictatorship.

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