The Malvyn Tan Saga

Singapore-born and well-known British concert pianist Malvyn Tan unexpectedly became the focus of a heated National Service( NS) debate in 2005, after a court here convicted and fined him $3000 for his failure to undergo the compulsory 30 months full-time NS almost three decades ago.

Tan, then a Singapore citizen, left here in his teens to pursue his music studies in London, but never returned here for fear of legal consequences for evading the obigatory NS. He and his parents believed that such disruption would adversely affect his overseas studies and career. In addition to becoming a fugitive of law, his parents had to forfeit a government security bond of $30,000. However, as his aged parents could no longer visit him in London periodically, Tan, then 49 and had earlier taken up British citizenship, decided to come back here in 2005 to face criminal action. He did this both for family reasons and because he wanted to contribute to Singapore’s musical development.

He was duly charged and convicted of evading NS. Although the offence carries a maximum fine of $5000 or up to three years’ imprisonment, or both, the judge fined him only $3000 in view of past precedents and the circumstances of this case. He obviously believed that a jail term would not be appropriate.

Tan’s case became a cause celebre due to media publicity because of his celebrity status. Many Singaporeans were infuriated by the court’s decision. In their view, he was let off lightly because of his international standing. They felt strongly that the seriousness of the offence and his selfish motivation for committing it called for a custodial sentence in order to uphold the sanctity of NS.

Many were also disappointed that he did not even publicly appologise for his misdoing as an act of atonement which could have won him sympathies and reduced the public hostility towards him. A flurry of letters to the press and numerous postings on the Internet reflected the widespread displeasure of Singaporeans over the lenient treatment of Tan. The resultant controversy and the intense public debate went on for weeks, with only a handful willing to forgive him as he had already been convicted and humiliated for what he did long ago. In response to the strong public sentiment on this case, the Defence Minister said that he, too, was personally in favour of jailing NS defaulters. He hinted that the laws governing NS would be reviewed.

I can understand the forthright public reactions to this episode. But, were they right in concluding that, despite the gravity of the charge, Tan was partially treated due to his prominence? Writing as someone familiar with law administration in Singapoe, I have no doubt whatsoever that the court’s decision was in no way influenced by Tan’s social standing as this would have done irreparable damage to our judiciary’s hard-earned reputation for its fairness and integrity.

One great strength of our legal system is that judges are generally empowered to exercise sentencing discretion in a given case by meting out a heavier or lighter sentence, depending on the merits or circumstances of each case, so that justice is seen to be done. Hence, in most cases, only the maximum punishment and not the minimum, is laid down by the enabling legislation. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that, had the judge erred in showing undue leniency in this instance, the Attorney-General, who is Government’s chief legal officier, should and would certainly have appealed to the High court, which can reverse the lower court’s decision. The fact that he chose not to do so must mean that he found the verdict acceptable.

While I am not against jailing a NS evader if the circumstances of the case so warrant it as a deterrent to others, I am against amending the law to make imprisonment a mandatory requirement for all cases of NS evasion. This would certainly tie the hands of judges where mitigating factors sometimes call for judicial compassion and mercy. The conventional wisdom that hard law makes bad law still has application here.

A sequel to this episode is that Tan, in my view, was right to cancel his year-end public performance here, as well as declining to be a judge at a local national music competition, in order not to aggravate the tense situation he found himself in. In an open letter through the local media, he said that “he was prepared for the worst” when he returned here to face the court. “I was afforded no special treatment, nor were concessions given me because of my profession. When the verdict was delivered, it is impossible to describe how I felt. Relief of course, the sort of relief only the forgiven can feel. Deeper than that, gratitude. I hope one day I will still be able to perform in Singapore. I hope to tell you through music what I have found so difficult to put into words” he concluded.

Tan’s case brought into focus the hitherto emotional and sentivitive issue of NS, which, due to untiring governmental efforts and that of the community, has now become not merely an accepted institution but, more important, as an overt act of patriotism amongst younger Singaporeans. Did Singaporeans overreact to this case? Should they have taken a more compassionate approach to it and magnanimously forgiven Tan for his youthful folly, which may be partly attributable to misguided parental influence?

First of all, those who lashed out at Tan firmly believed that he had deliberately made a mockery of NS and yet got off so lightly because of his previleged position. This is most unfair to those young Singaporeans who willingly completed NS with pride as a mark of responsible citizenship. However, substituting another less august NS evader in place of Tan in the same case, I very much doubt that the court’s decision would have attracted so much public scrutiny and media blitz. While this case demonstrates how important NS has become in public eyes, I can’t help being disappointed that Tan’s detractors had unwittingly demonstrated their lack of confidence in the integrity of our judiciary to dispense justice without fear or favour.

To mitigate Tan’s misdemeanour, I could empathise with his plight and his prolonged suffering and anquish over a fateful decision unwisely taken decades ago. For this sin of commission, he had already paid a hefty penalty for his misjudgement. His subsequent return here to face the music, as it were, did call for some courage and conviction and can be considered an indirect act of atonement. On hindsight, Tan should, perhaps, have made a public apology to his erstwhile fellow Singaporeans for his unedifying past deed and seek their forgiveness. This would have generated sympathies for him, provided it was proffered sincerely and not as an expedient and meaningless gesture.

The Malvyn Tan saga would, overtime, fade away from the public memory here. As a music lover, I hope that, when the dust is finally settled, Singaporeans would show their compassion and generosity by extending a warm welcome to him to fulfil his desire to perfrom for them and to contribute to music advancement in the land of his birth.

Lam Pin Foo

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