Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Entry of Laughter and Forgetting

I promise that this will be the last blog entry focusing on the Melvyn Tan “controversy” (as some call it) unless there are really compelling reasons for me to talk about it. In the latest Channel NewsAsia article, “Pianist Melvyn Tan defers public appearance after National Service furore”, he proves to be of enduring interest.

First, before I make any analysis, allow me to express a sympathetic note (which I hope does not get misconstrued as emotional or even sappy). Just how much must a person go through for not going through NS? The news article reports: “He said he came back to Singapore knowing full well he could face a jail term.” Is there any point to continue demonizing him as an irresponsible NS defaulter? Whatever unfairness one feels there is, Melvyn Tan was not the perpetrator. No doubt, he might have consulted lawyers before deciding to come back, but no lawyer could promise him that he would only get away with a fine.

On the other hand, could one not consider the anguish of someone like Melvyn Tan? A sort of anguish perhaps as inexpressible as the indignation some men who have gone through NS feel.

Allow me to emphasize once and for all that I am, in this blog and elsewhere, by no means encouraging Singaporean men to evade National Service. Neither am I falling into the other side of the polemic that shouts the importance of NS. I believe there is room for every thinking human being to put herself/himself in the shoes of others although this does not indicate support for their actions.

At the center of the so-called controversy lie human individuals. (I hope to use the term “individuals” in as unloaded a way as possible.) The recent death penalty debate has its individuals: Nguyen, his mother, his brother. So does the Melvyn Tan controversy: Melvyn Tan, his parents. Not to forget the face of each man who feels that there is unfairness. How often has the individual been reified into a faceless issue?

What happens when individuals are dissolved into a painting coated with a layer of green paint?

Look at the picture in the CNA article that I have cited:
Image hosted by

Perhaps Melvyn Tan seems to be controversial precisely because has an undissolved face—the solitary face defying a general facelessness. For a different discussion about Face, read XenoBoy’s article.

The many who have learned to accept the dissolution of their faces (perhaps in place of a larger-than-life Face) see the return of the repressed in Melvyn Tan—a return that has become quite physical indeed.

Is the CNA article about Melvyn Tan? Or about the mass of dissolved faces confronting the uncanny appearance of Melvyn Tan? Why the picture?

Perhaps Melvyn Tan, too, has to deal with the return of the repressed. He is a face devoid of a voice:

“He said he hoped one day he would still to be able to perform in Singapore, and be able to tell through music what he has found difficult to put into words.”

An unspoken anguish?

Melvyn Tan, in fact, is also faceless.

The face of controversy that he carries has been (super)imposed on him. We can no longer see him as Melvyn Tan. We can no longer see him as Melvyn Tan the pianist. We can only know him as Melvyn-Tan-the-pianist-who-defaulted-NS-and-paid-a-$3000-fine. The hyphens are unbreakable chemical bonds.

Can the subaltern speak? No.
Can the face of subalternity be seen? No.

Could we uncover something? Hopefully.

Are you a Melvyn Tan?

Important advice-cum-disclaimer: this blog entry is perhaps best forgotten by your mind and remembered by your conscience.

*For more work on memory/remembrance/forgetting, read the more recent works by XenoBoy.


Blogger Green Ogre said...

I'm actually really sorry that Melvyn Tan cancelled his concert. That there were thosed that missed out on what his gifts brought. Music.

I thought that some people were too hard on him. Come on, the fella left Singapore as a kid. And which of us wouldn't want to evade NS? I know I did. NS just didn't seem all that appealing to me then.

So he dodged the system, went overseas and made a name for himself. Now he's back and we've fined him and collected his bond money. Personally, I'd make him give free performances and teach at our local music conservatories for two years. That'd be productive and constructive. And he could even break up the community service into blocks of a few months at a time perhaps.

So now we've fined him. Many people are still indignant and he's cancelled his performance. So what do you get? Some more money into state coffers, where whatever help they may render to the people are moved my unknown hands in the Ministry of Finance.

It's all so childish to demand that he go to jail for not serving NS. It doesn't sound like patriotism and righteous indignance so much as a case of sour grapes. "Oh I did that, so he should too!"

I mean, come on! When has the world ever been fair? Sure, we try to make things fairer and more equal, but it doesn't usually happen. And none of the bitching around helps.

And of those who complained that the sentence was too light. Were they particularly outstanding NSFs? Were they even decent soldiers who did their jobs well? I

I wish that people could look into the mirrors and see their own imperfections before deriding others. Most just seem blind to their own faults.

So give it a rest. He's been publicly humiliated and driven off. They ought to be happy now.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Molly Meek said...

I understand if people question if he had een given special treatment. I suspect this to be the initial reactions.

But the good media spins it into: was his punishment too light.

Maybe this gave people ideas and they start saying that the punishment is too light.

Of course, it doesn't help that the ST publishes uninformed letters that ask Mindef to reply when, in fact, it a court decision to fine him. Well, perhaps it is a bit too seditious to publish letters that question the court.

In this case, I don't think the courts have been unfair. The people who turned it into a controversy have been unfair.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Molly Meek said...

Or rather the courts have not been unfair relative to legal precedents...

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, the perceived need for deterrence evident in the ever harshening of laws…

The argument that it is for ‘our greater good’ and the ‘protection of that greater good (which our society acts as the supposed foundation for)’ no longer holds true. Perhaps it’s because the means – NS – have become so oppressive such as to defeat the ends or perhaps the ends – our greater good, supposedly embodied in our society and its foundations is no longer (perhaps never was) true and no longer valid. Perhaps both are true. Probably both are true.

I personally don’t believe in mass society but let us postulate the legitimacy of mass societies and the need to protect them through the military. The greater the perceived need to coerce the populace and deter the shrugging of this ‘responsibility’ to contribute through sacrifice, to supposedly ‘protect’ the greater good, the more that society’s claim to being for the greater good and corollary to that, its alleged right to coerce the populace into mandatory conscription, loses foundation and legitimacy.

Indeed it may be the case that we are already conquered and imprisoned by the elite in our country. Should the victims of the occupation contribute to the preservation of its own occupation and enslavement? Who worries about the ‘external’ when we are already conquered by the ‘internal’?

The use of Melvyn Tan as a figurehead reminds me of the use of the character, Goldstein, in George Orwell’s 1984..if you know what I mean.


12:46 AM  

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