Sunday 21 June 2015

How I went AWOL & almost got 18 months’ detention because of a girl

Just in time for SAF Day next month.

Last week, The New Paper reported that a guy had his sentence extended from three weeks of detention to 18 months for being absent without leave (AWOL) from the army to study medicine in the UK.

In other words, his punishment was increased by about 25 times.

Uh… happy SAF Day?

Would this have happened if not for Melvyn Tan?

’Memba him?

2015 will be the 10th anniversary of classical pianist Melvyn Tan getting fined $3,000 for defaulting on his national service (NS) to study music in the UK.

So it’s not just SG50 this year - it’s also MT10.

For many who did their NS (including myself) and didn’t get to go to the UK to study anything starting with the letter M, a $3,000 fine for a draft dodger was not fine.

Following the outcry, then Minister of Defence Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament:
“Mindef does not consider it necessary at this time to seek a minimum mandatory jail sentence for Enlistment Act offences, as the circumstances of the cases vary widely.

“However, from now on, Mindef will ask the prosecutor to press for a jail sentence in serious cases of NS defaulters, and explain why we consider a jail sentence appropriate in a particular case.”

In the end, Tan never went to jail, unlike the AWOL guy, who at least did some NS, although Tan did have a concert cancelled here because of the controversy at the time, the poor thing.

But fret not for the NS defaulter who renounced his Singapore citizenship to become a British citizen.

Since causing a national uproar in 2005, Tan, now 59, has performed numerous times in the country where he didn’t want to be a citizen

To quote his website:
“After an absence of two decades, Melvyn Tan made a triumphant return to Singapore. He played to a full Esplanade Hall in January 2011 and has since returned regularly to Singapore for orchestral and recital performances and to teach young musicians.

“Since September 2012, he has shared his knowledge of pianos old and new and of the art of interpretation as Artist in Residence at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.”

Meanwhile, operationally ready NSmen have to pass their IPPT every year.

If only I had practised the piano more instead of working on my sit-ups when I was young, I could’ve also skipped NS and made a “triumphant return” like Tan did.

And I wouldn’t have almost got 18 months’ detention for going AWOL myself.

Oh yah, did I mention that I once almost got 18 months’ detention for going AWOL during my NS?

I was a medic at the Brani Medical Centre at Brani Naval Base on Pulau Brani.

It was so long ago that both Brani Medical Centre and Brani Naval Base don’t exist any more.

Pulau Brani is still there, but as I discovered, despite what the name sounds like, it’s not the island where they grow briyani rice.

I was back on Brani to complete the last few months of my full-time national service after “disrupting” to study journalism (which doesn’t begin with M) in the US (not the UK).

I had only a few weeks left to stay out of trouble. I was, as they say “mood” and restless.

As with everything else in life, it was because of a girl.

I had become infatuated with a female orderly at the medical centre, but my feelings weren’t quite requited.

Feeling depressed and a little more self-destructive than usual one morning, instead of reporting for duty at the medical centre, I went to the base canteen and called the medical centre to tell my Encik that I was going AWOL.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“At the canteen,” I said.

“Having breakfast, is it?”

“No, I’m going AWOL.”

“But you’re on base, right?”


“Then just come to the medical centre. We can just say you’re late.”

“No, I want to go AWOL.”

There was some confusion at the other end of the line.

A few minutes later, a vehicle from the medical centre was sent for me.

I figured I had been absent long enough to make my point and so I accepted the ride.

Also, it was a long way from the canteen to the medical centre and I didn’t want to walk.

My Encik didn’t know what to do with me. Neither did the officer sent to interrogate me about the incident later that day.

“On the one hand, going AWOL in the canteen is not really AWOL,” he said. “On the other hand, it can still be considered AWOL since you’re not at your assigned post which is the medical centre.”

He wanted to know why I did it.

I was too embarrassed to admit I was trying to get the attention of a girl.

So I told him I wanted to see what detention was like and “test the system”, which was partly true.

“Oh, in that case,” he said, “I’ll send you in for 18 months so that you can get the full experience.”

That was when I panicked slightly. “Can’t I just go for one week or so?”

“No,” he said firmly. “Since you want to test the system, it’s either the whole 18 months or nothing. Your choice.”

“Oh, in that case,” I said, trying to sound disappointed, “I choose nothing.”

“Good,” he said. Case closed.

And that, my friends, was how I almost got 18 months’ detention for going AWOL.

And it wasn’t because I went to medical school in Britain but because I didn’t go to the medical centre on Brani.

I wonder whether I would’ve been given the option of skipping detention if I had gone AWOL after the Melvyn Tan case.

Someone should ask him to give a concert on SAF Day.

You know, for MT10.

- Published in The New Paper, 21 June 2015

To S M Ong

Loved your article on AWOL. Maybe the SAF should ask the doctor wanna be whether he plays a musical instrument. Can be a mitigating factor.