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Malaysia's 3-month national service a flop?
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - Some 25,000 Malaysian teenagers have completed the inaugural compulsory three-month national-service stint aimed at promoting patriotism and ethnic unity. But most participants apparently don't like it and there is widespread public unease over major and minor incidents, including violence, gangsterism and truancy. Another 50,000 Malaysians in two more groups are to complete their national service soon.

The program, which has military-type aspects of an outward-bound program, included some military training as well as courses in personal development and values. Like Malaysian society, it encountered problems with racial polarization and lack of inter-ethnic mingling, restlessness and alienation, lack of discipline and other social issues.

The national-service initiative was hit by bad news from the start: a drowning, a rape allegation, brawls and other violence, a break-in, gangsterism, truancy and other, mostly disciplinary problems. Trainers and trainees alike got into trouble and some were arrested for wrongdoing; others demonstrated over grievances or walked out.

The program had targeted some 480,000 Malaysians who were born in 1986. Of these, 85,000 were randomly selected for service, but about 10,000 trainees failed to show up - and in retrospect, were spared some of the woes of life in camp, which proved to be a reflection of the weaknesses in Malaysian society.

Critics, meantime, questioned the financial transparency of the RM500 million (US$131.6 million) program and whether contracts were properly awarded. A few trainers walked out, complaining that they had not been adequately paid their salaries and allowances as promised by the Institut Kepimpinan Wawasan (Vision Leadership Institute).

A news report on April 21 quoted a camp commander as saying he was disappointed that Institut Kepimpinan Wawasan - one of the rare occasions this little-known body was mentioned in the media - did not keep its word about payments.

The institute, which is headed by a retired brigadier-general, had been tasked with designing the physical-training module, hiring the trainers and managing its implementation at 42 campsites nationwide. For accommodation, planners tapped university hostel facilities that were vacant during semester breaks.

Opposition parties and other groups have called for a suspension of the program pending a thorough review of the need for the program or a revamp in its implementation.

Service initiative takes root
The national service initiative had its roots during the administration of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, when a cabinet committee presided over by the defense minister was formed in October 2002. Four subcommittees were set up to look into the finance, curriculum, legislation and logistics for the program.

Last May, the cabinet approved the national-service implementation plan and the National Service Training Act, which were passed in parliament the following month.

There was precious little time - just months - to prepare for a program of this magnitude, which was rushed through as a result. In addition, Mahathir stepped down as prime minister in October, passing the torch to new Premier Abdullah Badawi.

In their haste to implement the program, planners failed to consult a broad spectrum of society as to the wisdom of going ahead with national service. Some have argued that many of the national-service program's activities could have been carried out in schools and inter-school camps at the local level or through sporting events or uniformed units such as boy scouts, girl guides, Red Crescent societies and school cadet corps.

Critics have complained that the headlong rush to implement the national service program compromised detailed planning and preparation. Some trainers appeared ill-prepared and inadequately screened for their job, they said. And numerous logistical teething problems surfaced, such as an insufficient number of buses in which to transport trainees.

Program shows social weaknesses run deep
Officially, the national service program had three main objectives: to inculcate patriotism among the youth, to promote inter-ethnic unity and national integration and to build character by emphasizing noble values. Privately, some observers said the program was a tacit admission of the failure of the education system to deal with restlessness and alienation, social problems and the lack of inter-ethnic mingling among the country's youth.

Though the program's aims seemed uncontroversial enough, skeptics pointed out that it would be nearly impossible to realize such goals during a three-month program. They said racial polarization and social problems were the result of more deep-seated structural and systemic weaknesses in Malaysian society.

Some of these problems had driven the more disillusioned Muslim youths into the arms of opposition parties such as Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Keadilan - as was evident during the reformasi-inspired peaceful street demonstrations in 1998-2001.

Analysts say decades-old affirmative-action policies aimed at giving a lift to indigenous bumiputras (ethnic Malays) in education and employment had resulted in pockets of resentment among the non-bumiputras. This created a bumiputra/non-bumiputra dichotomy that could not be easily papered over through a military-style or outward-bound training program.

In the end, life in the camps proved to be a microcosm of the social reality in Malaysia with all its attendant problems. Now, the complaints that rocked the program have also put Deputy Premier and Defense Minister Najib Razak, whom Mahathir had favored to become Abdullah's deputy, in an uncomfortable position ahead of upcoming ruling-party polls and a general assembly.

Najib complained that excessive media reporting on the problems encountered in national-service camps had given a negative view of the program. "There are too many reports on every single thing that goes on and these have given a very distorted picture of the program," he said.

And for now, with more teens scheduled to begin their national-service stints soon, officials and planners have their work cut out for them if they are to salvage the national-service program's tarnished image.

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May 4, 2004



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(Jun 21, '03)

 

         
         
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