Perhaps it is impossible to repress a repressive mechanism, so National Service is one issue that keeps cropping up in Singapore, appearing in discussions about foreign talents to those about new citizen MPs and the perceived divide between the political leaders of Singapore and the disempowered people they are supposed to serve. While the strongest detractors of NS will definitely disagree with the necessity of conscription, even the staunchest supporters of NS will not go as far as to deny that conscription is problematic and comes with disadvantages for conscripts. The continued existence of NS without bitter objections is only possible when it is believed to be a common denominator for all (male) Singaporeans, but when this belief is eroded and NS, in fact, becomes seen as a site of gross disparities, a discursive explosion threatens to take place. The issues as some focus on questioning NS on the one hand, and others concentrate on interrogating the circumstances that make inequalities in NS possible on the other hand. NS will be challenged, as will foreign talent policies and the position of the power elite in Singapore. It is no surprise that Tony Tan’s bid for presidency also sees the appearance of NS as an issue of contention.
Singaporeans who have not heard about the claims that Tony Tan’s sons were given special treatment in NS must have very advanced news blocking or filtering systems. First, Patrick Tan was said to have disrupted from full-time national service for an unusually long period of 12 years; the lack of similar examples probably arouses suspicions in many Singaporeans especially when he also served in an NS vocation (Defence Medical Scientist) that is virtually unheard of. More recently, Temasek Review Emeritus reported about claims that Tony Tan’s other two sons, Peter and Philip served as clerks despite being combat-fit, giving the impression that the family has a very attention-grabbing collection of rarities to say the least. We should remember, however, that no one is saying that Tony Tan’s sons did not fulfill their NS obligations. On the other hand, any insinuations that Tony Tan had abused his powers may be deemed defamatory.
We must, regardless of how much we like Tony Tan, allow him and his three sons to defend themselves against serious allegations about their integrity. It is unfortunate, then, that they do not seem to be putting up the strongest defense possible—or at least the mainstream media, which is always so eager to help protect the reputations of certain people, has failed to report their clarifications very well. Claims are “refuted” with counter-claims sans substantiation while the specific allegations are not even reported by The Straits Times and Today.
According to a statement issued by the sons as reported by Today
The allegations concerning our National Service – circulated on the Internet and reinforced by Dr Tony Tan’s opponents – are lies.
Either the paper forgot to report which allegations in particular or the sons forgot to mention the allegations. It cannot be that every single claim that has been circulated on the Internet, such as the claim that Patrick Tan disrupted for 12 years or that or that he served as a defence medical scientist, is false. After all, some information such as Patrick Tan’s vocation is provided by Mindef. It is of utmost importance, then, for the sons to specify which allegations are false and for the media to report them even if we were to trust what the sons are saying.
The other claim made by the sons is about themselves:
We fulfilled all obligations in accordance with the rules, regulations, and deployment policies of Mindef. (The Straits Times)
Again, this is a claim that can easily give rise to doubts. No one is accusing them of not fulfilling their NS obligations. The additional qualifier that they fulfilled their obligations “in accordance with the rules, regulations, and deployment policies of Mindef” may arouse deeper suspicions since the question that people will naturally ask is whether Mindef’s policies actually allow for special treatment to begin with. In other words, if Mindef (and this is purely hypothetical) has the policy of deploying the sons of ministers to non-combat vocations, then fulfilling NS obligations according to Mindef’s policies is meaningless. We know that Mindef’s policies regarding disruption and deferment are not entirely inflexible on paper, but we see reservists having difficulties even in deferring one In-Camp Training in practice. When the flexibility is exercised, it is certainly legitimate. But people will question why it is so rarely exercised and if it is reserved for special people or occasions. How could someone be allowed to disrupt for 12 years to pursue a Ph.D overseas while a local graduate student is not even able to defer, for very good reasons, an In-Camp Training even though theoretically it is possible for the application for deferment to be granted. Even if it is said that some people are exceptionally talented and concessions are made for them, is it not discriminatory that others are not granted the same concessions despite having the same (or even stronger) needs?
The controversial issue is not whether Tony Tan abused his powers as a minister, but whether he even needed to abuse or simply use his power to begin with.
We cannot blame the general public for being doubtful. It is known that certain personnel in the armed forces were once classified as white horses, and while the classification was ostensibly to ensure that white horses did not get preferential treatment, many have the impression that they were accorded special treatment despite the official rationale of the policy.
What Tony Tan and his sons should have done is to list specific allegations and address them one by one. For example, if Peter and Philip were not deployed as clerks despite being combat-fit, they should say so explicitly. Or if they were, they could say so too and explain why it is not uncommon for at least two of three medically fit sons in a family to serve as clerks in NS.
Mindef also has a responsibility to account to the public. At the very least, it should clarify the vocations to which Tony Tan’s sons were deployed. It should also be transparent about the deployment process—even if we believe the Tan family fully, are there any measures put in place to ensure that the deployment of a serviceman to a particular vocation or unit cannot be decided or changed by, say, just a friendly phone call to a friend? Such policies should exist since Singapore’s conscripts have no say over where they are posted to. If they had a choice regarding their vocation and unit, we can at least assume say that deployment decisions are made based on individual preferences. But since servicemen do not have a choice and human beings are in charge of deployment decisions, it is important to ensure that the system is transparent and not prone to abuses. For instance, how many officers of what rank must approve before a serviceman’s vocation is decided or changed? If Mindef does not have processes in place to prevent abuses, it should also explain why.
Neither the Tan family nor Mindef can expect the public to be satisfied simply because they claim that everything is fair. Perhaps the truth is that it is very fair indeed, but there is a need to convince the public. In Singapore, it seems that the establishment fails to distinguish between assertion and persuasion. The public is naturally very cynical. If servicemen have seen their superiors treating “white horses” especially well, even if it is out of unfounded fear of trouble, there will be a sense that the system is unfair. The conclusions that people who actually experience NS arrive at based on first-hand observations are important. Instead of dismissing them because there is no evidence that is admissible in a court of law, we have to remember that the trial by the public follows a different set of rules. In order to put across a more convincing justification of the continued existence of NS, Mindef has to ensure that the concerns of the public are adequately addressed.
A simple Google search leads me to one page of a forum where I can already find comments like:
During my BMT time, there happened to be one or two companies that were better off in terms of welfare than the rest of us. Just because there were a handful of these precious white horses in them.
I was from Nee Soon BMTC ‘K’ coy. during my time, “L” coy had a BG’s nephew, and the treatment was already different!
I once saw the officers doing area cleaning for the recruits of a white horse company in BMT. They get to go for breakfast late and book in the latest as well. Open secret? It’s bloody blatant enough.
It is about time we ensure that the system is so fair that most member of the public will not question it. If all three sons of Tony Tan (or even merely one of them) are deployed to non-combat vocations, Singaporeans deserve to know why, especially since now that Tony Tan is keen to be the President. The public may have forgotten about the case of a father who wrote to the press to relate an encounter with his MP after his son died in service. He was advised by a friend to seek the help of his MP to grant his younger son an exemption because of the death of the elder son. While there is probably no policy that allows anyone to be exempted from NS because his elder brother has died while serving NS, the parents said that they were traumatized only to be retorted by the MP who said, ““What traumatic, after two months, you won’t be traumatic [sic]?” (The letter can be found here)
Indeed. After two months, the trauma will disappear. This is exactly what Singapore’s collective repression of memory has always been about. It surfaces every now and then in certain individuals, but collective denial is all that matters. Truth is the burial of doubt.
The White Horse classification which supposedly ensured that no preferential treatment was given was scrapped after 2000. Does it mean that preferential treatment can now be given? Let us forget about this. Perhaps this is what is meant by having a President that can unite the people. Someone to help us forget is someone to help us unite. If you buy into this ideal, vote for Tony Tan tomorrow.
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