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National Service: A fiasco waiting to happen

THE NATIONAL SERVICE FIASCO is one waiting to happen. The idea is excellent. It is a long time coming. We are not told why we need it now in a hurry, but we have a surfeit of rosy official statements of what it hopes to achieve. One could not flout it. But beneath it is a veritable can of worms which reveals the corruption, the inefficiency, the dangers of entrusting teenagers to a programme subject to market and primordial forces deliberately ignored and forgotten in this rush to force it down the throats of Malaysians. The blind and the deaf took it upon themselves to teach the sighted, with the real danger that the sighted would be half-blind and half-deaf at the end of it. The government forced it down the throats of Malaysians, threatening hellfire and brimstone to those who refused to partake in it. But when the inequities became public knowledge, the Cabinet stepped in to insist it would be carried out without fail. The 10,000 who did not turn up were first threatened with jail and, when that raised a storm, given a second chance. But the closer you look into it, the more frightening the impact.

There is nothing wrong with NS if it is carried out as it should be. For years, the National Front (BN) government would not hear of it for that would mean teaching non-Malays the rudiments of using weapons. The racial reasoning is uppermost in official policy. Its national integration plan is to unite the races to a mathematical plan: six Malays, three Chinese, one Indian. No one has told us why one is needed now. But it is to bring order and discipline to the wayward Malay boys and girls who drift into the towns from the villages, and drift away from society, unable to cope and without help or hope. In every town, the shanty towns where they congregate are centres of anti-social behaviour. The usual litany of drugs, anti-social behaviour, teen-age pregnancies and other social ills predominate, and tests the government's promise to wean them out of it. But apart from pious statements of intention, nothing is done. They have now become a political problem.

So, the NS scheme is concocted, its scope widened to include all teenagers, and enveloped in high ideals and intent. But there was no discussion about it, no serious thought given, nor how the money would be spent. Nevertheless, a half-baked plan is put into operation. Lucrative portions are farmed out to politically connected UMNO worthies. The high ideals and intent masked a scramble for a piece of the action in which the girls and boys were cannon fodder. If the government was serious about it, it should have handed this scheme to the armed forces. They have a history of training recruits into shape and discipline. They know what they do. And I dare say, even with the three months available, those who went through the course would have benefitted much from this. But to do that, they should have been brought into the discussion. They were not. There was no consistent plan. it is doubtful if the NS scheme itself will be a permanent. When the money runs out, or the organisers see something new that could be farmed off for cash, the scheme will be good as dead.

All we know is that RM500 million is allotted, 41 camps have been set up, with 600 boys and girls in each, looked after by trainers, allegedly selected with care but not, as we now know. Since there would be three batches this year, about 70,000 would go through this mill. They move from one camp to the other for the four modules they have to follow, and as they move, a new batch fills their place. The physical training module, and the camps where they take place, at the fringes of the jungle, are privatised. Security there is non-existent. Each camp should have at least 20 guards, but there are only two. Although RM25 is alloted per person for food, only RM9 is spent. The authorities ignore allegations of rape and other crimes, upset not that they took place but that it gives the programme a bad name! Yet the New Straits Times made the rape of a trainee as its lead story on the front page. As usual in these matters, there was an agenda. It was not out of horror or concern but that this programme comes under the aegis of the deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, who, in the belief of the UMNO politics of the day, should be eased out.

The trainers are selected, often, at random, without background checks or competence, and made to work 16 to 20 hours a day. Many of them are not paid at all, or in dribs and drabs. The morale is understandably low, amongst the trainees and the trainers. Fights break out, rapes take place, peeping toms a menace, discipline is not there, nor a desire of authority to make it work. But the bigger problem is that it cannot be wished away. That the cabinet insists the NS programme would not stop is no substitute for the mess on the ground. Two opposition political parties, KeADILan and DAP, have called for it to be suspended. Given the mess the government is in over it, it would be ignored. But it should modify it drastically. Start with the boys, and bring the girls in, if it has to, only when the system is up and running. Why were the camps and training privatised to invididuals and companies with no experience? Why were not those who could, like the armed forces, brought in? Why were not all these problems and difficulties discussed and sorted out as they arise?

Without discipline, the camps would descend into a rabble. Especially when its administration is flawed with over-worked and not-paid trainers and with an administration that only know that the camps must be filled for them to make money. What we should worry about is that given the indifferent training the boys and girls get, is that some, if not more, could turn out even worse social menaces than when they entered. For the others, if they are chosen to a mathematical formulae as they now are, it leaves an even more bitter pill in that it convinces them that Malaysia is a racial society in which one race would always gain the upper hand.

Why, for instance, are almost all the trainers Malays? Why for instance are dietary restrictions not catered for? The vegetarians are told to eat the vegetables in the fish or meat curries. There is no culinary diversity, only Malay food. Those who don't eat beef or fish are told to starve. If this is what national integration is, then it surely sends out the wrong signals. I find it curious that in a programme that could eventually cost RM1 billion, the ministers have not visited the camps. Why not? Some of the horror stories out of these camps, mostly by parents told of them by their children, appeared so frightening, but they cannot get a hearing. Why? Is there a plan to ask the trainees to write an assessment of their time in camp? If there is not, there should be. If it is an important programme, why this excessive secrecy about it. Nothing short of a full parliamentary debate would do.

[An edited version of this appeared as my Chiaroscuro column today, 27 April 2004, in malaysiakini ( under the heading: NS - cash cow for the connected.]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 28 April 2004

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