There should be a end to the plethora of confused and muddled thinking about the government’s “national service programme” to ensure that there will not be a massive waste of public funds and the time and energy of Malaysians, particularly the young generation, for the wrong reasons

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(PenangMonday):  The first problem about the  “national service” programme announced by the  Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Najib  Razak last Friday is to end the plethora of confused and muddled thinking surrounding the subject to ensure that there will not be a massive waste of public funds and the time and energy of Malaysians, particularly the young generation, for the wrong reasons. 

An example of this confused and muddled thinking is the Malaysiakini report yesterday quoting the Parliamentary Opposition Leader Datuk Seri  Abdul Hadi Awang as saying  that PAS supported the National Service Training Bill 2003 but wanted the government to meet a few pre-conditions first, stressing: "No doubt we too wish to defend the country, as we too are patriotic, not just the government." 

Hadi is right that nationalism and patriotism are  no monopoly of the Barisan Nasional Government as the Opposition are equally if not more nationalistic and patriotic and are no less committed than the Barisan Nasional government to defend the country from any attempt from whatever quarter to threaten the independence, sovereignty and national territorial integrity of Malaysia. 

However, the National Service Training Bill 2003 is not about the defence of the country as Najib had himself admitted that Malaysia’s  “national service” programme is different from those implemented in other countries because its main thrust is to promote national unity and not for national defence. 

That it is a  misnomer to call it a “national service” programme  is confirmed by the details announced by Najib, as no country in the world has a compulsory  military service lasting only  three months, involving  a one-month training camp at 16 locations near selected forests, mountains, rivers and beaches followed by two months’ centralized stay in hostels at institutions of higher learning and teacher training colleges during semester breaks – with the curriculum covering basic military training, civics education, character-building and social services. 

MCA President and Housing/Local Government Minister, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting said that the “national service” programme is not to train Malaysian youths to “fight a war” but aimed at producing more disciplined, united and patriotic young people who were inclined towards inter-racial harmony – raising questions whether more could not be achieved with the government and political leaders setting a good example of national unity, greater  inter-racial and inter-religious sensitivities, an uncompromising commitment to justice and good values, zero tolerance for corruption, communal  and “black gold” politics, and  dissolving  political parties  exclusively based on race.

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Tourism, Datuk Kadir bin Haji Sheikh Fadzir, recently questioned the  loyalty and patriotism of the Malaysian Chinese, when he  equated patriotism with the flying and waving of flags.  If Kadir  reflects the mainstream thinking of the Barisan Nasional government, would’nt it be more fruitful to allocate a sizable chunk of the RM500 million earmarked for next year’s “national service programme” to ensure flag-flying in every household and flag-waving by every Malaysian? 

Clarity of thinking on the subject is not enhanced when the Minister for Youth and Sports, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, referred to the new role of Rakan Muda programme as a “pre-national service” for students, “to give a jump start to the national service programme”. 

Hishammuddin said on Saturday that the Cabinet had agreed that the national service programme should begin in schools through uniformed bodies and Rakan Muda clubs. He said his Ministry could use the RM16.5 million budget allocation under its national social service programme for the pre-national service programme. 

There is also reference to what is called “post-national service programme”. 

As the National Service Training Bill is not about compulsory military training to defend the country, but to instil patriotism, national unity and discipline, Parliament will be remiss in its duty if it passes such a legislation without finding out the root causes of the failure of 11 years of schooling in the national education system to inculcate these values and qualities among the new generation of Malaysians – and how a three-month stint for 20 per cent of the 480,000 18-year-olds in the country could make them better Malaysians and, for instance, arrest and reverse the problem  of racial polarization in the country! 

The statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi yesterday  that parents should not deter their children from joining the compulsory  National Service,  and should instead advise and persuade their children who don’t want to join  to participate in the programme is a percipient one, as it highlights the important question whether the government is making the grave error of imposing the compulsory programme without first achieving national consensus, not only among  the students but  also the parents and the civil society at large. 

Earlier, there had been reports inspired by government sources that students and  youths fully support the national service programme, which is contradicted  by the proposal of criminal sanctions whereby  18-year-olds could  be fined up to RM3,000 or jailed up to six months, or both, for failing  to turn up for the programme after selection. 

Something is grossly amiss about a “national service” programme to instil national unity, patriotism and discipline which could envisage the imprisonment of 18-year-olds, lumped with hard-core prisoners in the terrible conditions of Malaysian prisons, for failing to report for such a programme, as such a notion is so offensive and obnoxious that it calls into question the wisdom of the entire legislation. 

Or have we reached a stage where those who question whether the National Service Training Bill is the best or even proper way to instil national unity, patriotism and discipline among our youths can be automatically targetted, tarred and defamed as unpatriotic, disloyal and anti-national? 

There should be no rush to legislate and implement the National Service Training Bill in the next two weeks, when it is a bill with a misnomer and had not been made public.  After its first reading in the Dewan Rakyat, it should be referred to an all-party  Parliamentary Select Committee to conduct nation-wide public hearings, both from students and their parents as well as the civil society, as to what is the best way to instil national unity, patriotism and discipline among the young  generation of Malaysians.  

All reports, studies and recommendations, including the four Cabinet sub-committee reports on the curriculum, logistics, finance and the law of the “national service” programme should be made available to the parliamentary select committee and the public so that a national consensus  transcending race, religion and political party could develop on the issue.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman