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Some questions on Dr Patrick Tan’s NS stint

with 21 comments

By now, most people have already heard about Dr Patrick Tan’s NS stint which recently raised eyebrows all over cyberspace given that he served in a special capacity. So let me add on to that. Some of what will be discussed here has already been raised in an email sent to Mohd Nizam who would be meeting Dr Patrick Tan on Friday. Here’s some background and intro to who Mohd Nizam is. I didn’t expect Mr Nizam to publicise the email, which he did after informing me and somehow it ended up on TR with the contributor identified as Curious here.

Here are some preliminary background information on which this post is based. Dr Patrick Tan’s CV is found here and his press release is archived here. I’m not including the press statement by Dr Tony Tan himself because he says nothing apart from that he’s “deeply disappointed” with rumours.

Warning: This will be a long post. It’s hard to keep it short when there are so many questions.

Let’s begin with the original reply by Dr Tony Tan’s office which started it all.

On medical school choice

Dr Tony Tan’s office, in his original reply says that Patrick Tan’s disruption is no different from other medical students who also got to disrupt. But of course this is a highly misleading reply. Firstly, in the 1980s not everyone got to disrupt even if they made it to study medicine. MINDEF had tightened the disruption policy two years earlier, in 1986 as shown here. Pursuant to this, it should be noted that MINDEF does indeed selectively disrupt NSFs (after serving for 6 months only) to study medicine abroad prior to 1991 when policy finally changed. So Dr Patrick Tan belonged to a highly exclusive group of Singaporeans who were selectively allowed to disrupt for overseas medical studies. Dr Patrick Tan seems to be aware of this exclusivity given that he says he had to make his case to MINDEF:

I made my case to the Ministry of Defence and was granted permission to pursue this course of study.

However, Dr Patrick Tan did not appear to have studied in a medical school which was recognised by the Singapore Government then. As pointed out by an SBF forumer (Doctor Evil) here, Dr Patrick Tan studied in Stanford medical school. Stanford was formally recognised as an approved overseas medical training college only in 2003, after Dr Patrick Tan had left service. Why was Dr Patrick Tan allowed to take up medical studies as a student in a yet un-recognised school when his disruption was granted on grounds that he would be studying medicine abroad?

The fact that Stanford remained unrecognised until Dr Patrick Tan left service effectively meant he could not undergo the Medical Officer Cadet Course (MOCC) to become a medical officer (MO) when he returned from Stanford in 2000 to do his NS. However since Stanford was recognised in 2003, it’s entirely possible for him to undergo MOCC for his reservist in-camp training (ICT). In fact some medical student graduates I know who did not get to disrupt to study medicine in NUS, but only finished medical school after NS had to go for MOCC so they could serve their reservist as an MO. Yet there’s no indication in Dr Patrick Tan’s reply that he had actually done so, since he remained as a 3rd Sargeant and never got promoted to Captain for his NS ICTs. Why is this so?

Update: I’ve struck out the above because a commenter, Criticalist, pointed out that Dr Patrick Tan’s alma mater where he got his MD qualifications has long been recognised (since 1971) as a approved overseas medical training school. The question now becomes: Why didn’t Dr Patrick Tan do his MOCC when he returned from Stanford to finish his national service? Why was he allowed to remain a non-MO? How is Dr Patrick Tan able to choose the medical research path before he completes his NS and not be forced into compulsory clinical practice for the duration of his NS like every other doctors? Anyone here would like to clarify this?

On the NS disruption and scholarships

Some people argued that disruption is usually granted for outstanding individuals, even if it means a 12-year stint for overseas Bachelors and MD-PhD. I’m well aware that medical schools in the US are graduate schools who take in graduates only, so a basic degree is necessary before admission, and that Dr Patrick Tan’s 8-year term spent doing his MD PhD is not unusual since it’s the norm. Those shouldn’t be issues. This was something I myself was mistaken on until others had clarified.

The question that should be asked was when exactly the disruption was granted. As explained in two previous posts, an ST article from 20th Aug 1988 here clearly states that Dr Patrick Tan could not make it for the photo-op where the four other President Scholars gathered the previous day. He was already in Harvard when that happened. So the crucial question to ask is this: When exactly was the young Patrick Tan awarded the President Scholarship? Was he disrupted before he was notified on the President Scholarship? Did his application for disruption take his President Scholarship award into account? Or was it based solely on the other scholarship (Loke Cheng Kim)? When was Patrick Tan awarded the Loke Cheng Kim scholarship?

Furthermore while many commenters elsewhere have said they knew individuals who were allowed to disrupt NS to do their Masters or PhD. But it seems progressively harder to disrupt when you are aiming higher up (harder for PhD than for BSc/BA) and treatment was not granted uniformly. For example, some people say they know of  PSC scholars who did PhD after they disrupted NS successfully to do their Bachelors. But unlike all PSC scholars, Dr Patrick Tan was not bonded and hence was not a PSC scholar. It seems that PSC scholars who disrupted were bonded since almost all (if not all) PSC scholarships are bonded. By contrast, the Loke Cheng Kim scholarship is one of the very few scholarships which carry no bond at all:

The Foundation’s Scholarship is one of the few in Singapore which carry no bonding requirement.

So if it’s not accurate to say that he disrupted to study medicine overseas since he didn’t attend a recognised medical institution, it must be due entirely to his exceptional achievements, since one can’t use the fact that such scholars are bonded because Dr Patrick himself was not bonded by any of his scholarships, including President’s Scholar.

Other less fortunate exceptional individuals

However, it seems the policy for exceptional individuals have not been applied uniformly. Consider this other exceptional individual who wrote in to ST Forum in 2001, someone who represented Singapore at age 17 for the International Maths Olympiad. While he was granted an NS deferment for his bachelors at Carnegie Mellon, he was made to agree in writing that no further deferment would be granted for PhD at MIT. The result? This outstanding individual gave up his Singapore PR and took up American citizenship so he could do his PhD at MIT. The only difference between Dr Patrick Tan and himself is that there’s no indication he was a scholar. Why wasn’t this individual, unlike Dr Patrick Tan, granted a further deferment for his PhD?

Other outstanding and talented individuals, such as this violinist prodigy Ike See in 2006, was forced to change his course from a three-year to a two-year diploma so that he could defer NS. In other words, they didn’t always get what they wanted and had to compromise their own demands to accommodate MINDEF, who may later allow them to disrupt on less favourable terms than they might have liked. Was there any indication Dr Patrick Tan had to compromise on what he had sought in order to get disrupted?

And the most ironic thing about Ike See’s application for disruption? Curtis music school, the article notes, is the music world’s equivalent of Oxford or Stanford, the latter of which was attended by Dr Patrick Tan:

Curtis is like the Oxbridge or Stanford of the music world. You have to compete with people from around the world for a place there.

Some other puzzling things and questions

Now, in Dr Patrick Tan’s CV, it states that he was granted the Loke Cheng Kim scholarship and President’s Scholar in 1987. Now that’s a curious thing. ‘A’ Level results are typically released only in the year after the candidate has sat for them. So how could he have been awarded the two scholarships in 1987 especially when news reports say he was awarded in 1988?

Another puzzling thing is that Dr Patrick Tan says that he was attached to DMERI for his NS:

I was attached to what is now the Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute (DMERI, then called DMRI) to research Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes melioidosis.

Now there’s a big difference between being posted to DMERI and being attached there. If he was attached, what was his parent unit? In other words, what was he supposed to be doing if he wasn’t attached out?


Some closing thoughts. Some people might say that this is a personal attack on Dr Tony Tan and his family. Let me emphasise here that it is not. It’s a separate issue. Accordingly I have avoided mentioning Dr Tony Tan for much of the discussion above. This issue has taken a life of its own independent of Dr Tony Tan’s presidential campaign. In fact it has even inspired a letter to the ST Forum which called for MINDEF to explicitly spell out and clarify the NS deferment/disruption criteria. It’s unfortunate, though, that this surfaced only when Dr Tony Tan decided to run for president.

PAP apologists and Dr Tony Tan’s defenders have been quick to argue that being close to the PAP and the establishment’s inner circle for many years should not automatically disqualify Tony Tan as a presidential candidate. Professional qualifications and attitudes, they say should be the only criteria considered rather than political independence.

Likewise the same people should not be so quick to dismiss questions about Dr Patrick Tan’s NS stint just because his father happens to be the target of politically motivated criticism. Let the issue be judged on its own merits, just as the PE candidates should be.

Written by defennder

August 4, 2011 at 12:33 AM

Posted in Singapore affairs

21 Responses

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  1. Great, balanced article on this issue (as opposed to some I’ve read thus far).

    There are some points I’d like to raise in response to yours. With regards to the medical school choice, I found a document on the SMC website entitled “List of Registrable Basic Medical Qualifications” found here http://www.smc.gov.sg/html/1258947022911.html which listed “Harvard Medical School” for MD, and “Stanford University School of Medicine” for MD, as added to the Schedule in 1971. If that link is not available, try the google docs version. This would seem to indicate that Stanford and Harvard were both valid schools at the point when Patrick Tan applied for it.

    Also, note that Patrick attended his pre-med at Stanford, although his MD-PhD program was at Harvard. In the news article you cited, he was “already in Harvard” when the photo op occurred. Note Harvard and not Stanford where he obtained his BA. It may well be, then, that the scholarships he obtained apply to Harvard as the primary school where he obtains his MD, as opposed to Stanford. Finally, whether the school is listed in the medical registration list, I suspect, is independent on whether he obtained a scholarship for that school. Should he choose, for example, NOT to practice medicine in Singapore (ie as a General Practitioner or specialist etc), he need not register with the SMC for the Provisional or Conditional registration. In other words, because he has decided to pursure a research path rather than practitioner path, the school he attended need not be in the SMC Schedule. It just means he can’t practice medicine, but he can still do medical research. Indeed a search through the SMC’s Register of medical practitioners for Patrick Tan or Tan Boon Ooi shows that he is NOT registered.

    If this is the case, that whether the school is recognised or not has no bearing on his scholarship (which is for a research degree) or his disruption, would that raise questions about your second point about his disruption?

    Having said that, I know, of a PSC scholar who went to Oxford and is bonded upon his completion of his Bachelors studies. He turned out to be the top student of his cohort and was highly praised in the dept, and he wanted to pursue a PhD there with the university’s blessings. He applied for a deferment of his bond in order to pursue a PhD but was rejected. He returned to complete his bond and I have to wonder, how his career path would be very different if he had been deferred to do his PhD and returned to SG to do leading research. While this example is different, I can only hazard a guess that because Patrick Tan was given a scholarship for an MD-PhD programme, the scholarship was for the full duration of the programme and hence to disrupt him at any time before that programme was completed would not have made sense. Think of it as a through-train programme which may not allow for a disruption on the school side.

    What might be asked, however, was why was he not given a scholarship purely for an MD degree, and thereafter to return to complete his NS, and should he wish to pursue a PhD afterwards, to apply for a separate scholarship which I have no doubt he’d be able to obtain easily given his abilities. Sure, the MD-PhD is highly selective (Harvard lists 150 per cohort) but it is also twice the duration of a standard scholarship.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:33 AM

  2. I should also add that while Patrick’s case might have surfaced possible preferential treatment of the children of ministers, we need to ask the broader question rather than dwell on a single case. And that question is of the many ministers that have children around Patrick’s age (plus/minus 10 years), how many received preferential treatment in terms of their national service? Unless this is systemic (note, after all, hardly any mention of Tony Tan’s other son), we are pursuing this matter as a form of character assassination of his father, much like the Vincent Wijeysingha’s character assassination attempt during the GE.

    Let’s be clear what the clarification of Patrick’s case hope to achieve, which should really be about possible preferential treatment of elite children.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:40 AM

  3. Patrick Tan went to Harvard for his BA, not Stanford. His MD/PhD was from Stanford.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:49 AM

  4. […] Horse is White – Furry Brown Dog: Some questions on Dr Patrick Tan’s NS stint – The Satay Club: MORE PAMPERED THAN ROYALTY? – Thoughts of a Singapore Statistician: Dr Tony […]

  5. Criticalist

    Thanks for the correction. Looks like I was mistaken in believing that Dr Patrick’s Stanford MD was not recognised at the time. The SMC list states it was recognised since 1971. So the real question now becomes why didn’t Dr Patrick Tan become a medical officer cadet?

    Now I’m less clear about the research vs. clinical practice path. How come he gets to decide how exactly he should serve his NS? If he hails from a recognised medical school, then shouldn’t he be made to do NS as an MO first, after which he can then pursue research?

    Also which 2nd point are you referring to?

    And yes, I’d like to ask the bigger question too. Namely how many other white horses got privileged treatment. But Patrick Tan’s story has the most information available, and probably the only person who has bothered issuing any clarification about his NS. For the other white horses, all we have are unsubstantiated rumours. Unless of course you happen to have a link to their publicly displayed CVs from which questions can be asked.


    August 4, 2011 at 12:51 PM

  6. Dr Patrick Tan couldn’t serve as an MO because he did not complete the 1-year residency requirement. HE got his MD in 2000. Had he taken done his residency and USMLE, he would have needed another year before coming back.Since he was not a licensed doctor in the US, he could not qualify for conditional registration with the SMC.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:16 PM

  7. I forgot to add, according to http://www.smc.gov.sg/PRSCPDS/scripts/profSearch/profframe.jsp, Patrick Tan Boon Ooi is not a registered medical doctor.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:19 PM

  8. Fox

    Ok, but just raises another question: why did MINDEF approve his second disruption in 1992 after his basic degree when according to his CV he was on the MSTP programme in Stanford. I thought all medicine disruptions were approved on the assumptions that the graduates would return as MO. Assuming MINDEF was aware that he would be doing joint MD-PhD (on the MSTP), surely that would have prompted them to contact him to make sure he would become a practicing doctor long enough to serve as MO. If he wasn’t going to be a doctor, how could the 2nd disruption in 1992 be approved? Shouldn’t they have called him back? Or was the 2nd disruption granted on a different basis?


    August 4, 2011 at 1:28 PM

  9. Beats me. I am also curious why he did not attempt the one-year residency. My suspicions are that he simply presented a fait accompli to Mindef and they had to lan-lan accept him as a non-MO given that you-know-who was at the top of the Mindef food chain. I know of people who dropped out of the medical course in NUS and went back to serve in combat units as officers/specs.


    August 4, 2011 at 1:43 PM

  10. Viewed against the backdrop of today’s ST front page news of a young NS man who has died in training, Dr Tan and his son (and those like him, and those in Mindef) ought to take a good look at themselves in good conscience and repent, and desist from perpetuating Animal Farm’s “some-pigs-have-two-legs” kind of social injustice; and stop defending the indefensible.

    As someone who has served 3 years of full time NS, and 13 years in Reserve, who risked life and limb in training, who has seen young men coming home from overseas training in “boxes”, visited young men in blood-drenched army fatigues in hospital, Dr Tony Tan, Dr Patrick Tan and MINDEF’s self indulgent letters sickens me to the bone. Makes me want to vomit…

    First Batch National Serviceman.

    john lee

    August 4, 2011 at 3:17 PM

  11. At the end of the day, is it still doubtful that
    officialdom had ipso facto bent over backwards to accommodate PT?

    If it is the truth, even an UGLY truth, it is most NOT character assassination.

    Let the truth come out.

    We can all handle it.


    August 4, 2011 at 3:20 PM

  12. 1: Patrick Tan’s Bachelor degree in Harvard is not a medical degree, in his own word, it is a pre-medical study.
    So the question is, does Mindef based on the medical need (soil disease) to grant him the deferment?

    His study in Harvard:
    1992 Graduated summa cum laude (Highest Honors), Harvard University

    And all Harvard Medical School’s degrees are here:

    2: Patrick Tan study for Ph.D is from 1992-2000 in his CV, however, in the same CV, his graduate thesis is completed in 1998. Is there a two-year gap?

    1998 Charles Yanofsky Award for Most Outstanding Graduate Thesis, Stanford University

    Patrick Tan’s online CV

    We know this is his graduate thesis because this is his own statement in media:

    “I graduated with the Charles Yanofsky Award for most outstanding graduate thesis in biology or chemistry.

    ‘After graduating from Stanford, I returned to Singapore in 2000 ready to complete my national service in whatever post I was assigned.

    In the same statement, he did clearly clarify that in 1992 there is no time gap, then why he ignored the gap in 1998-2000?

    “I attended Harvard University (late 1988-1992) for pre-medical studies and moved on directly without interruption to Stanford University”


    August 4, 2011 at 3:32 PM

  13. Hi,

    I just read PT’s CV on your link. It says that he obtained the President’s Scholarship in 1988 (instead of 1987 as you alluded to above). That said, there was no mention of the Loke Cheng Kim scholarship in his CV (under the section “Honors and Awards”), which is puzzling. One would naturally want to highlight every single award/honour in one’s CV.

    You may want to revised your article.


    August 4, 2011 at 5:33 PM

  14. john lee

    With a family name like that, I expected that you would have undergone better treatment. But I salute you for having suffered for 3 long years under the Israelis. Many NSFs today cannot compare their experience to yours. Let’s not even talk about white horses.


    Has replied you in the other thread.


    Hmm you’re right. Just wondering was his CV revised or anything? A few days ago I went to the Web Archive and retrieved the earliest version of his CV from 2006. I was afraid things might change without me knowing. In that CV. Here’s the archived copy:

    It’s stated in 1987 there. But the Loke Cheng Kim scholarship is stated under Awards and honours, but it’s not presented in chronological order. Strangely it’s stated at the end.


    August 4, 2011 at 11:16 PM

  15. Re the ‘missing years’ of 1998-2000, if you look at the training sequence for the current Harvard MD-PhD (link here: http://www.hms.harvard.edu/md_phd/program/training_sequence.html) 2 additional years are required for the course, after the thesis was successfully defended and passed.The 2 years included clerkship, electives, ‘match residency’, further research. A similar structure exists in the Stanford MD-PhD program where post-thesis, clerkship and additional research continues for 2 more years.

    I think MINDEF should clarify on the specifics of disruption for medical studies, particularly if the disruption is permitted ONLY if the outcome is that one returns as a registered practitioner (of which Patrick was not), or if disruption is permitted in a broader sense – so long as the nature of the degree(s) is for medical studies/research. This is unclear in this particular context.

    Finally, the public CV that Patrick has might not be the complete CV. That is common practice. A local scholarship received post-A-levels rapidly pale in comparison to international research standing vis-a-vis his publications.


    August 4, 2011 at 11:18 PM

  16. Pre-med, even if it is at Harvard, is NOT medical school. It’s just another undergraduate degree. Sure, one can apply to medical school following completion of pre-med, but there is no compulsion to do so, nor is there a guarantee that one would be admitted to medical school thereafter.

    A local analogy would be for a NSF to be disrupted simply because he intends/hopes to enroll in the Duke-NUS medical programme or NUS MBBS-PhD programme AFTER completing his undergraduate degree (which may be non-medical). Similarly, there is neither the compulsion nor the guarantee that the latter will happen. If this were the case, anyone who has an offer of an undergraduate place in any university would qualify for disruption…

    Furthermore, as alluded to earlier, 12 years is a mighty long time for disruption of NS liability… I’m just wondering if anyone else has managed to top that number?


    August 5, 2011 at 12:59 AM

  17. […] Horse is White – Furry Brown Dog: Some questions on Dr Patrick Tan’s NS stint – Blogging for Myself: Dr. Patrick Tan an exceptional […]

  18. the whole point of allowing deferment for medical studies is for the person to serve as MO during active nsf. his research on meloidosis can be done concurrently with his being a MO or someone else can do it all together. it is obviously unfair to allow deferment and then not serve as MO. surely during reservist patrick should be made to serve as MO as there was a shortage that drs not allowed to defer during nsf had to convert to MO during reservist? his CV did not list any housemanship so is he a registered medical dr or not??how can he be allowed to defer so long without being fully registered ?? this is blatantly unfair.his nsf was 3 months bmt 3 months of ocs junior term then 2years of “serving ” in a civilian company ie civilian life.other drs have to go out field training while he is in air con comfort. there are plenty of drs in singpaore more qualified to do research on meloidosis than him.


    August 22, 2011 at 12:11 PM

  19. I was initially upset with long disruption of Dr. Patrick Tan but after mulling through it, I think perhaps there may be issues surrounding his disruption and research that cannot be openly discussed because of various security or national/ regional sensitivities. Meliodosis is a bio-terrorism agent and was used in the two world wars and most recently in Afghanistan. I read up more about it in the following article:http://www.bordeninstitute.army.mil/published_volumes/biological_warfare/BW-ch07.pdf (reference to singapore and the use of meliodosis for bio-terrorism on pg 149-150)

    In fact, if you google meliodosis AND bioterrorism AND singapore, you will find lots of interesting articles to read. Hope this is relevant to the discussion.

    catherine wong

    August 25, 2011 at 8:58 PM

  20. One angle that has not been looked at here is that National Service does not stop after two or two-and-a-half years: that is just the full-time (NSF) part of National Service.

    How about the NSMan part? I am interested to know whether he was called up after he finally completed his NSF stint: was he served SAF100, whether he had to do IPPT every year, whether he was subject to mobilization manning, etc.?

    Did he get his MR letter?


    August 26, 2011 at 12:29 AM

  21. The Straits Times on page A7 today ( friday 26th August) states that prior to 1992, Mindef allowed disruption for NSFs to obtain their medical degrees before serving out their NS liabiility. Their records show that 86 NSFs were allowed disruption for overseas medical studies.

    What I would like to know is the number of years these 86 NSFs were disrupted for their medical studies and how many of these 86 NSFs were allowed a 2nd disruption for them to pursue their post graduate degrees or specialist qualifications. If some or most of the 86 NSFs were disrupted for 12 years or so to complete their postgraduate or specialist qualifications, then clearly, Dr Tony Tan would be vindicated because ” they are all lies”.

    It is clear that Mindef’s disruption policy should not favor white horses. If the facts show that only one of these 86 NSFs was disrupted for 12 years and the rest for 8 years or less, then I would like to hear some explanations for preferential treatment of white horses.

    The Straits Times said that Dr Tony Tan was defence minister “between 1995 and 2003” during which Dr Patrick Tan returned to serve out the remainder of his NS. I have difficult in faulting Mindef’s deployment policy when Dr Patrick Tan returned in 2000. He could not be deployed as medical officer because he did not commence his houseman training ( ?) despite being disrupted for 12 years. I suppose he could be deployed as a medical support staff in the SAF but it would be a waste of his training. Who knows, he could achieve a medical breakthrough during the year of so left of his NS. As long as the officer in charge of deployment had no interference from his boss and did not receive any benefits, I think the research posting is reasonable.

    Lastly, does anyone know why Mindef’s disruption policy for overseas medical studies was changed after 1992?

    K S Teo

    August 26, 2011 at 3:35 PM

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