Friday, February 27, 2009

Guest Article: NS Observations and Thoughts (I)

Below is Part I of an excellent piece written by Mei San on the NS program. She's one of the many young Malaysians who have inspired me and given and continues to give me hope in our country.

84 Days in Camp – NS Observations and Thoughts

Ever since the National Service (NS) programme was launched in the year of 2004, 339,186 trainees have graduated1. Up till 2007, RM2.37 billion has been spent on the programme2. As of June 2008, 16 trainees have died3.

Due to the unexpected deaths and the large amount of expenses involved, there have been many calls, by parents as well as the Opposition, for the NS programme to be called off. Citing reasons such as patriotism and racial integration, the Ministry of Defense has been insisting on the importance and the benefits of the programme. The Defense Minister, also Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak was even quoted saying that the government wanted to continue with the programme as it was “becoming more popular”4. During a Dewan Rakyat sitting, Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Wira Abu Seman Yusop also said studies on the effectiveness of the programme showed a positive response where success in instilling patriotism was 82 per cent, building confidence and leadership (88.3 per cent) and nurturing the spirit of community integration (86.7 per cent). 5

In the writer’s opinion, to call off or not to call off the NS programme, a thorough and transparent review of the programme will first have to be conducted. The review will then be brought up to the Parliament, where the relevance and the necessity of the NS programme to our youths will be decided through transparent, fair and constructive debates.

This piece of writing will present certain points, which, the writer opines, are worth included if any review of the NS programme is to be done in the future. Writing in the spirit of democracy, which appreciates the existence of checks and balances, the writer also hopes to create awareness about the necessity to question the realities behind the NS programme, as well as to invoke more debates and sharing of opinions regarding the NS programme. As a former NS trainee, the writer understands that her view might not be viewed as totally independent. Nevertheless, it should be kept in the minds of all readers that this piece of writing intends to ask questions, not to provide answers.

Integration Programme

The Integration Programme (Program Integrasi) was a one week programme aiming to promote racial integration among trainees and was conducted by external instructors. The daily sessions spanned from 9a.m. till 4.30p.m. Before the session started each day, trainees were first assembled to sing a song which comprised of greetings in five different languages commonly used in Malaysia- Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin, Tamil and Bahasa Jawa. The programme was divided into three subtopics: culture (kebudayaan), religions (agama) and the roles of men and women (peranan lelaki dan perempuan). For each subtopic, a textbook was provided. The programme culminated with a closing ceremony consisting of both traditional and modern cultural performances by the trainees under the supervision of their respective instructors.

The syllabuses for each topic, as outlined in the textbooks, are as followed: 6

Culture (Kebudayaan)

This subtopic aims to educate the trainees about the various race-based cultures in Malaysia and the differences as well as the similarities that exist between them. It is hoped that this will help to reduce the conflicts and to create an integrated, established Malaysian society. The topics included in the textbook are traditional costumes, traditional food and traditional music of the respective cultures.

Religions (Agama)

This subtopic aims to educate the trainees about the different religions in Malaysia. Apart from the elaboration on the virtues called by the religions, there is also emphasis of the importance to respect all the religions in Malaysia, which, the textbook claims can be actualized by “avoiding in-depth discussions about the different religions in order to prevent sensitive issues being raised”. The topics included the traditional festivals and traditional practices of different religions, but are very much racial inclined.

Roles of Men and Women (Peranan lelaki dan perempuan)

This subtopic aims to educate trainees about gender stereotype, the need to overcome it, to be aware of their own perceptions on the roles of each gender and to understand the importance of inter-gender unity.

On a side note, the instructors in camp often stressed the importance of building racial integration in the NS programme. Henceforth, in all events and activities, including meal times and night patrol, trainees were instructed to sit in groups which comprised of “Malays, Chinese and Indians”. There was no mention of the other minorities, such as Eurasians or the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, which could easily be dismissed by their absence in the camp. If the trainees were to be found to have disobeyed such instructions, harsh warnings of punishment could be expected from the instructors. More than often, it also involved remarks such as “Do you want May 13 to repeat?” or “The Chinese trainees want to return to China?”

The syllabuses of this Integration Programme resembled much of the syllabus of our national education system for the subjects of Moral Education, Civic Education and a small part of History. If a decade of national education system utilizing these materials has failed to reduce racial polarization in Malaysian youths, why should a one week integration programme in the three month NS programme be expected to do the miracle?

If a decade of such teachings has failed to meet its objectives, why are we still moving in the same direction?

Moreover, the textbook on religions is misleading and confusing. The overall contents are very race-based. Instead of writing on the teachings of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, it tells of the traditional practices and beliefs of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Dayaks, Bajaus etc. The ambiguous distinction between races and religions only indicate the shallow mentality and insensitivity of the authorities towards the diversity that occurs within our dynamic Malaysian society. What is more, these are the very people who are preaching about integration.


Sports are the best ways to cut across all differences in order to achieve integration and unity. Hence, during the evenings, all trainees would be assembled and were allowed to play the different types of sports they like. During the writer’s training, a sports carnival was held from 9 July 2008 till 20 August 2008. The evenings were then spend on competitions for events which included netball, volleyball, football, cross-country run, tug-of-war, telematches (a.k.a. creative sports) and obstacle course.

There were two major problems with the sports carnival.

Firstly, no proper training was conducted and the players selected to participate were those who were already trained at school. The results was that those who were already skilled players continued to play in the field, dominating the games while those who did not know how to play continue to sit by the field, acting only as audience or supporters. No new player was produced. While unity and integration could also be inculcated and built through the players-supporters relationship, the teamwork that was supposed to be built and experienced in the field were only available to a certain group of trainees, who were fortunate to have received earlier training before NS.

Secondly, the trainees were taught a lopsided form of sportsmanship. Playing hard and giving your best in each game are the criteria of a good sportsman. Nevertheless, the respect for your opponents should also be instilled among trainees. During matches, trainees not only cheered for their own kompeni, but the cheers would occasionally turn into rowdy boos at their opponents. The instructors did little to quell those unruly name callings, as, most of the time, the instructors were themselves too engrossed in the proceedings of the games, too concern if their own kompeni would win the match.

Community Service

This module involved outings and visits to the various places as followed:

1. Maxwell Hill, Taiping. Trainees walked up 650m above sea level, approximately 6km.
2. Taiping Lake Gardens. Trainees participated in a Fun Walk and other activities, such as lucky draw, which were organized by the Taiping City Council (MPT).
3. Rumah Seri Kenangan Taiping. It is a governmental welfare home for the old folks. A presentation about the organization was given by one of the staffs to the trainees upon arrival. Trainees were later brought to visit some of the dormitories, doing a little cleaning up at the same time.
4. Bukit Gantang. The Great Durian Festival was held by the Ministry of Tourism and the event was launched by Dato Azalina Othman Said.
5. Kuala Sepetang mangrove swamp and charcoal factories. Trainees were given a presentation by an officer of the Perak State Forestry Department about the mangrove swamps and were later brought to the nearby charcoal factories by bus.

No explanation on the objectives of each activity was given to the trainees.

What were the trainees’ contribution and service to the community? Were the trainees anymore aware of their responsibilities as part of the community?

Outings to Maxwell Hill and Kuala Sepetang mangrove swamps can potentially serve to create more awareness about nature and the responsibility to preserve it. The visit to Rumah Seri Kenangan exposed trainees to the needs of old folks. Nevertheless, the visits were brief and provided little opportunities for the trainees to have practical experience in community service. The visit to Kuala Sepetang merely involved an audiovisual briefing without any venturing into the mangrove swamps. The dormitories in Rumah Seri Kenangan Taiping had little space for the large group of trainees. Furthermore, the dormitories were occupied by residents who were mobile and did their cleaning daily, prior to our arrival, thus offering the trainees little cleaning work.

What did the trainees’ participation in the Fun Walk and The Great Durian Festival teach them about community service?

Were trainees anymore wiser regarding the long term commitment and devout required in community service? Were trainees truly able to understand the importance of volunteerism and the spirit of serving above self?


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Fikri said...

This is the first time I've come across a detailed account of what goes on during the NS programme. I appreciate both the subjectiveness AND the objectiveness. Thank you for sharing this with us.