Parliament No:12
Session No:1
Volume No:88
Sitting No:5
Sitting Date:20-10-2011
Section Name:Oral Answers to Questions
Title:Deferment of National Service for Medical Studies
MPs Speaking:Dr Lim Wee Kiak, The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen), Mr Yaw Shin Leong (Hougang), Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied)

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Deferment of National Service for Medical Studies

(Dr Patrick Tan’s disruption from NS)

5 Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked the Minister for Defence if he could clarify (a) whether Dr Patrick Tan's prolonged disruption from full-time National Service, as well as his deployment to the Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, adhered to the then prevailing policies; and (b) whether Dr Patrick Tan had been accorded any preferential treatment.

The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Speaker, Sir, MINDEF had issued two public replies, in July and August this year, relating to Dr Patrick Tan’s disruption and deployment during his National Service. In those replies, we stated that he was treated according to prevailing policies. He was not given any preferential treatment. Let me provide further details on how these policies were applied to all full-time National Servicemen. I use the term "NSFs" for full-time National Servicemen over the years. I beg Members’ indulgence as there are quite a lot of details because the period is long. Please bear with me because I think details are important.

Since 1973, nearly four decades ago, MINDEF has allowed NSFs to disrupt from medical studies in Singapore because we need military doctors to serve in the SAF. This policy continues today. So, I think it is quite well known that NUS medical graduates are disrupted while they are NSFs to finish their medical degrees.

From 1981, the disruption policy for medical studies was extended to allow NSFs to study medicine overseas because the number of local graduates was insufficient. From 1981 to 1986, 38 NSFs were disrupted for overseas medical studies.

From 1986, the criteria were tightened to take into account their performance during Basic Military Training and Physical Employment Standards (PES) screening. Eight-six applicants were disrupted under this latter scheme, including Dr Patrick Tan in 1988. He had completed his BMT and was part-way through Officer Cadet School. From 1992, disruption for overseas medical studies was no longer allowed as the number of local medical graduates met SAF’s needs. All in all, in the 12-year period, namely, 1981 to 1992, when disruption for both local and overseas medical studies was a prevailing policy, 902 NSFs were disrupted to study medicine in Singapore and 124 for overseas medical studies, for a total of about 1,026 NSFs. So, in that 12-year period, 1,026 full-time National Servicemen were disrupted for medical studies, 902 locally and 124 overseas.

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MINDEF granted disruption so long as the medical degree was recognised by the Singapore Medical Council. And the length of disruption varied according to the time required to obtain a medical degree. For those who studied medicine locally, the period of disruption taken was typically seven years − five years for the medical degree, an additional year each for housemanship and hospital postings.

For those who studied overseas, almost all of the 124 medical students chose to study in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Australia. And these were disrupted for about seven to eight years. Only three NSFs applied and were approved for disruption to study medicine in the United States of America (US). By way of explanation, let me say that in the US system, the medical course is a graduate programme. In other words, to enter into a medical school, you will be required to have a pre-medical degree. So, the disruption period is typically longer – four years to obtain the pre-medical degree and then five more years for the medical degree proper.

I mentioned that only three applied for and were approved for medical studies in the US. One of them was deferred and disrupted for nine years. He obtained his US pre-medical and medical degree. The second case was deferred for four years to obtain his pre-medical degree and then decided that he did not want to do his medicine in the US but wanted to do it in Ireland instead. MINDEF granted it to him, so he was deferred and disrupted for a total of 12 years – four years pre-medical degree in the US, eight years for medical degree in Ireland. The third case, Dr Patrick Tan, was also disrupted for 12 years, for his pre-medical course in Harvard University from 1988 to 1992, and thereafter, for his combined medical degree and PhD program in Stanford University’s Medical Scientist Training Program.

MINDEF had written to Stanford University to enquire if Dr Patrick Tan could shorten his course for just an MD – a medical degree. Stanford University replied that it was not possible, "the Medical Scientist Training Program is an integrated MD/PhD program in which both the MD and PhD degrees will be simultaneously conferred".

Several others NSFs have been deferred or disrupted from NS to obtain their basic degree followed by a PhD. These are few and each case was assessed and approved based on individual merits. Let me cite some examples.

In 1983, a serviceman was disrupted to pursue medicine locally. After he obtained his medical degree, he was disrupted again for his PhD studies in Oxford. He did Onco-pathology under the Rhodes Scholarship. In total, he was granted disruption for ten-and-a-half years.

In 1990, an exceptionally bright pre-enlistee entered University at age 14 and was accepted into a PhD course in Cambridge before he was due for enlistment. MINDEF allowed him to defer his NS until he completed his PhD at the age of 21. There were two other servicemen enlisted in 1988 and 1993 respectively, who were disrupted twice, first to obtain an undergraduate degree under the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship, followed by a second disruption to obtain their PhD under the Rhodes Scholarship. Both disrupted for a total of eight years.

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So, in summary, for disruption, Dr Patrick Tan was disrupted in accordance with prevailing policy to obtain his medical degree. A longer period was granted to those who were admitted to US medical schools. Disruption for overseas medical studies has been discontinued since 1992. We also have not granted disruption or deferment for PhD studies since 1999.

Now, let me speak about Dr Patrick Tan’s deployment in answer to Dr Lim Wee Kiak’s question. Dr Patrick Tan was re-enlisted in the year 2000, having obtained both his MD and PhD degrees. He was deployed to the Defence Medical Research Institute (DMRI), in view of his training and qualifications.

DMRI was a new institution then, established in 1995 to coordinate and conduct human science and biomedical research aimed at enhancing the safety, survivability and performance of SAF personnel.

Other full-time National Servicemen had been posted to DMRI in the five years preceding Patrick Tan’s posting, from 1995 to 1999. Thirty-two NSFs were posted to DMRI, including another MD/PhD holder, some medical officers and the rest with A-levels, basic and Masters degrees. Fifteen of these 32 that I have mentioned were combat-fit. Each case was again approved on its own merit as having the qualifications that met the needs of DMRI. Some served in DMRI for the bulk of their full-time NS, while others were medical officers posted there on shorter stints of about six months.

After serving his full-time NS, Dr Patrick Tan was deployed to 3rd Combat Support Hospital and served his remaining NS liability till 2009.

MINDEF is acutely aware that all NS men must be treated equitably, regardless of background. I want to assure all Singaporeans that equity of treatment for National Service has been and must remain a cardinal principle. Without this strict adherence to this fundamental tenet of fair and transparent treatment, commitment to NS will be severely eroded and the institution of NS weakened.

We had or have explicit schemes, open to all applicants, which allow NSFs to disrupt for medical studies here or overseas which I have outlined in detail. There was no preferential treatment given to Dr Patrick Tan, or any other individual who was disrupted because of their connections. All NSFs were disrupted to obtain their medical degrees based on stated criteria applicable to all who qualified.

Dr Patrick Tan was deployed to DMRI, like the 32 NSFs before him, based on his qualifications, to build up the organisation and conduct medical research relevant to the SAF’s operational needs.

Over time, prevailing policies do evolve to meet the changing requirements of the SAF and operational needs. For example, as I said earlier, we no longer allow or grant deferments and disruptions for overseas medical studies since 1992 or for PhDs since 1999. In 2009, MINDEF also decided for operational reasons that NSFs should be part of a military unit during their entire NS. Since then, we have stopped deploying National Servicemen to DMRI or other research agencies.

Let me emphasise to all, including commanders on the ground, that no NS men should be accorded preferential treatment. I would like to further assure Singaporeans that MINDEF implements the policy of selective disruption for University studies fairly and openly in accordance with existing criteria. MINDEF shall henceforth publish the list of those disrupted for University annually, on a routine basis for public scrutiny.

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Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon): Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to thank the Minister for clearing the air on this particular issue. I have one supplementary question with regard to Dr Patrick Tan. When he was serving in DMRI, if I understand it correctly, he was serving in the capacity of a non-uniformed medical officer. Currently, the Minister mentioned that he was deployed to the Combat Support Hospital. May I just check with the Minister: did Dr Patrick Tan go through the medical officer cadet course? Did he undertake the necessary training as a military medical officer? If he did not, then how was he going to perform in the Combat Support Hospital, and in what rank was he performing his duties?

As regards the other two doctors that were disrupted, similar to Dr Patrick Tan, did they serve also in a research position or in a uniformed medical officer position?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Sir, MINDEF decided to deploy Dr Patrick Tan to DMRI for reasons that were already stated. After deploying him to DMRI, it was left to those in charge of DMRI to decide for all those 32 NSFs that I talked about, how to deploy them and what they would wear then. So, I do not have details of what he wore on any particular day. I do not think Parliament should be concerned about what they wore, unless there are reasons that Dr Lim Wee Kiak thinks otherwise.

Dr Lim asked about the other two cases. As far as our records show, the two were deployed as medical officers. The two went to NS and were deployed as medical officers. So I think they went through the medical conversion course. Dr Lim asked why for this particular case, Dr Patrick Tan had not undergone the conversion course. The specific reason was having been deployed to DMRI, there was no need for it. The medical conversion course was to convert medical officers so that they could serve as medical officers in the camps. Having made the decision to deploy him to DMRI, there was no need for the conversion course for him to function in DMRI.

There were other questions as to what was Dr Patrick Tan’s deployment after NSF, in other words, after he had finished full-time National Service. I think I have answered that in the main reply. Let me find that paragraph. I said that after serving his full-time National Service, Dr Patrick Tan was deployed to the 3rd Combat Support Hospital and served his remaining NS liability till 2009.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong (Hougang): May I ask the Minister how does MINDEF ensure that there is no preferential treatment? Is it through the "white horse" stamp system, like what the Minister of State had shared with the House several years ago?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Sir, just on a point of correction. I have never spoken on any "white horses" or any coloured horse in this House.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong: If I recall correctly, I think it was Mr Cedric Foo, then Minister of State.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: The Member’s question was how MINDEF ensures that there is no preferential treatment. That is a very important question. As I said in my reply, MINDEF is acutely aware that in order for NS policies to be successful, to have buy-in from the general public, equity of treatment for NS must remain a cardinal principle. And we do it through a variety of ways, some explicit policy which means that, in this case, for disruption of medical studies, because it is in that sense a different treatment for a select group of medical undergraduates, because SAF needs medical doctors, to make sure that the criteria are upfront and explicit. To the extent possible, we list them. For instance, we said that they must produce documentary proof for admission to a medical school recognised by the SMC. In the case of the US policy where we allow overseas medical studies, we said that the pre-medical course does not lead to any other professional degrees such as engineering or accountancy, they must furnish documentary proof from the University and that the pre-medical course leads to a medical degree. Where it is possible, we explicitly state so. Then there are signalling mechanisms. Our commanders understand that if you do not uphold this principle of equity, you are going to undermine your authority because people think that if I have connections and I have preferential treatment, it is going to be very hard to be able to train men as a group or make them feel committed to serve NS.

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Sir, I want to assure Members that MINDEF understands this. We do not ignore that there are different strata, but we hope that we can gel the men, regardless of their background, into one unit. From to time to time – let us be realistic, Singapore is small – we have anecdotes that someone thinks that because so-and-so’s son is in this particular unit, that the unit will be treated better. And when they are punished, the converse is true that this unit is punished because so-and-so’s son is in the unit and they want the unit as an example. We understand that, but I think, overall, we deal with it on a day-to-day basis, and we tell our commanders to make sure that when they apply a policy, they give good reasons why it is applied, maintain the principle of equity and lead by example. If Members of this House know of specific cases, where there is preferential treatment, there is open access to you to bring it up right to me, and we will deal with it.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Mr Speaker, to the Minister for Defence, thank you very much for that clarification. I am sure Singaporeans appreciate the restatement that equity in National Service is the cornerstone of the National Service policy. The question that was asked by the Member of Hougang, Mr Yaw Shin Leong was with regard to the "white horse" policy. If I can, may I ask the Minister whether medical dockets continue to be stamped today with the "white horse" stamp, in view of his comments on equity in National Service?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Sir, I think there were previous questions filed on the "white horse" matter which had been answered, but in direct answer to the Member, the answer is "no".