Every year since 2004, 18 years-old Malaysians who have just completed their SPM examination would tremble in fear, nervousness, some with eagerness. They were either browsing the internet, SMS-ing the related department, making phone calls or checking the post box waiting whether they have received the news of “Sukacita” or “Dukacita”.
No, they are not waiting for their SPM results. These school leavers are checking whether they are selected to the National Service Training Programme or not. Usually those who are selected will receive the SMS or letter with the word “Sukacita” while those who are not selected will receive the word of “Dukacita”. Unfortunately for most of these youth, those two words means the opposite to what have been sent to them.
Most of the young Malaysians feared the National Service. Parents then would find ways to help their children to avoid the Programme. Some would find Government Officers, Member of Parliaments, State Assemblymen, politicians and numerous influential figures with various reasons to get help. Reasons ranging from health issues, family needs, pursuing tertiary education and many more. Too bad, the department implementing this National Service is very strict. Health issues have to be certified by Government hospitals or clinics. Those already begun with their tertiary education would have to come back to serve in the Programme during their long break or after they have graduated. In a way, there are not escape if one is being selected.
10 years after the inception of the National Service Programme by Dato’ Seri Najib Razak as the then Minister of Defence, he suspended the Programme as the current Prime Minister early this year.
There are many criticisms and incidents throughout the decade implementing the National Service Programme. Incompetent trainers, poorly maintained facilities, sexual assault cases, food poisonings, health issues and deaths were among the issues which was brought up to the national attention. It was all over the news media. That was part of the reason some parents have been reluctant to send their kids to the programme.
Yes, that are some of the negative parts of the national programme. And it was almost highlighted in every general conversation in Malaysians about it.
Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to meet up for coffee with some friends who have graduated from National Service Programmes and the trainers as well. We discussed about their experience in the Programme, some over coffee, some just discussion on the popular tool, Whatsapp.
There are pros and cons over the discussion. As usual, the cons were all reported in the news. The sad thing is, most people don’t really bother about the pros; they are more keen to talk about the cons and criticize whoever is the one responsible.
Maybe those who have really experienced it will be able to tell the pros out of the cons.
One of the trainees have told me that it is a good opportunity and platform to deliver several essential topics to the youth. The trainees were given mock-parliament elections in the camp, teaching them about how the election and government system works in our country; instead of being easily confused and manipulated by election campaign sentiments.
All trainees were also made compulsory to participate in community services that allows them to experience voluntary programs which benefits the poor and less fortunate communities. Probably that was one of the reason that we can see voluntary groups especially from the youth mushrooming all over the country. The volunteerism during the recent record-breaking floods have been a good example. We can see the spirit of caring induced by the youth.
Few of my friends were trainers for religious classes particularly Buddhism. They told me that the National Service Programme is one of the very few opportunities to actually teach a religion to people at such an age. These group of young Malaysians would have less likely to spend their time at a temple or religious classes during their school holidays. Popular cafes and shopping malls would be their better option then if they were not selected to National Service.
Then there are also various workshops and seminars from crime prevention to astronomy, self-confidence to unity, first aid training to self-defense classes. In general, it has also helped the young adults to explore what is ahead in their lives in terms of career other than being doctors, lawyers, engineers as encouraged in a typical Asian family.
The whole programme have also created a better understanding of cultures from different ethnics. Indirectly, it has promoted unity when they joined each other in the same activities and workshops. From the way I see, it has benefited the trainees especially those who came from vernacular schools. Some of them might not have a single friend coming from another ethnic throughout their lives. Some friends who were once trainees said that they had the opportunity to know more friends or at least communicated with people who were not of the same ethnic in the camp. They felt more confident and less fear facing the community out of their own circle after the service.
Generally, these trainers and trainees that I knew agreed that the National Service Programme still has a lot of room for improvement, but the idea of the programme is healthy for the youth and should be continued.
As far as I have heard, there is no one single trainees who have regretted that he or she attended the National Service Programme.
In my honest opinion, it was a “Dukacita” message by the Prime Minister to suspend the National Service Training Programme.
This article has been published in Mandarin in Kwong Wah Yit Poh dated 30th January 2015.