|Malaysian youth service bill
By Anil Netto
Malaysia's proposal to introduce national military service for
youths has already come under fire. But there is a new
threat: if the bill is approved in parliament - as it
likely will be - the critics could be penalized.
Parliament heard the first reading of the
National Service Training Bill 2003 on Tuesday. The bill
is expected to be passed in the current sitting of
Already opposition politicians have
expressed alarm over several provisions in the bill,
which make it an offense to oppose national service
after the bill becomes law. So the wisdom on the street
is: if you want to criticize the bill, better do it now
while you can.
An elected representative who
opposes the national-service program faces
disqualification from parliament or the state assembly.
Other Malaysians who criticize the bill could be barred
from running for office. Anyone who instigates others to
oppose the program could face a fine of up to RM10,000
(US$2,630) or up to two years' jail, or both.
The proposal comes at a time when Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad is bidding farewell to delegates of his
United Malays National Organization, which is holding
its annual party assembly in Kuala Lumpur over the
weekend. Mahathir is due to step down in October, a
general election is expected soon after, followed by
UMNO party elections in the middle of next year.
The national-service scheme is supposed to be
aimed at instilling patriotism and loyalty and fostering
national unity and discipline among school graduates.
Initially, the plan was for 20 percent of the 480,000
18-year-olds to be enlisted for three months at a cost
of RM500 million ($131 million).
proposal for a longer period covering all graduates was
shelved because of the huge costs involved. There also
appears to have been a shift in emphasis from boosting
defense and national security to instilling patriotism
and national unity.
Critics have pointed out
that the bill has now considerably widened the targeted
group to make any citizen or permanent resident between
the ages of 16-35 liable to be called up.
Various groups have already expressed concern at
the government's apparent haste in pushing the bill
through the present session of parliament without giving
the public and elected representatives sufficient time
to study and debate such an important proposal. Neither
have the findings of four cabinet subcommittees - on
curriculum, finance, logistics and law - been disclosed
for public discussion.
It was only on June 13
that Defense Minister Najib Razak revealed selected
details of the plan, which would include basic military
training, and courses on patriotism and personal
Critics have argued that if the
government is really keen on tackling ethnic
polarization, it should examine the root causes. They
point out that deep-seated problems such as ethnic
polarization and disenchantment cannot be corrected by a
Analysts argue that ethnic
polarization has been aggravated by the tendency toward
racial and religious politics every now and then. This
is largely triggered by ethnic- and religious-based
political parties - both in government and in the
opposition - that tend to fan communal sentiments in the
hope of winning support.
These parties pay lip
service to national unity and harmony while in practice
championing the interests of their respective groups.
Not surprisingly, this spills over to the public -
reinforcing primordial ethnic and religious sentiments
that hinder attempts to realize genuine national unity.
The definition of "patriotism" has also raised
concern. In the past, the government has appeared to
equate loyalty to the country with loyalty to the
government. Any criticism or dissent is interpreted by
some quarters as a sign of lack of patriotism. Civil
servants and academics have already been made to swear
an oath of allegiance not just to the nation but also to
Others wonder whether the
national-service scheme is being introduced with
political considerations in mind, especially the coming
general election due by the end of 2004 but expected to
be held earlier.
In the last general election in
1999, some 680,000 new voters were denied the chance to
vote, as their registrations were not processed in time
for the polls. Many of them were disenchanted young
people who wanted to express their unhappiness at the
ballot boxes. Upset with the ouster and jailing of
ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, these would-be
first-time reformasi voters felt that they could
make a difference at the ballot box. In the months after
reformasi was unleashed, many registered
themselves as new voters.
In the event, they
were unable to vote, as Malaysia's Election Commission
takes several months to process voters. Now that they
are on the electoral rolls, these young voters could
make a difference in constituencies where the ruling
coalition parties squeezed through with slim majorities.
In the last general election, the ruling coalition won
with 55-56 percent of the popular vote. This time, the
new voters - if they are still disenchanted - could make
a difference in many closely fought seats.
"National service" could also be aimed at
forcing Muslim and non-Muslim youths to mingle together
- a tacit acknowledgement that 11 years of school
education has somehow failed to foster meaningful,
genuine interaction among the various ethnic and
religious groups. Many young Muslims, disillusioned with
corruption, abuse of power and other social woes under
the present government, have also gravitated toward the
opposition Islamic Party, PAS, in search of an
Whatever the real objectives
of the proposed national-service scheme, it could do
with a dose of critical re-evaluation of its objectives.
If the aim is to foster unity and loyalty, the question
of allegiance to whom must be answered honestly. Love
for country is not the same thing as love for the
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