By Kee Thuan Chye
3rd October 2013
Let me be upfront about this. I’ve never been in favour of our National Service (NS) programme, and I think it should be scrapped immediately.
From the day it was implemented in December 2003 – in fact, even when it was first proposed about two years before that – I had thought of it as nothing but a propaganda opportunity for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government, as another medium it could exploit to pollute young minds with its warped ideas about nationalism and patriotism. And goodness knows what else.
In fact, one of its declared objectives is – brace yourself for it – developing a generation that is obedient and loyal to the Government.
This of course is totally uncalled-for and misplaced. And it confirms my fear that our young are getting wrongfully indoctrinated during their NS stint. Loyal to the country – yes. But loyal to the Government (and it may not just be the BN government; it could one day be the Pakatan Rakyat one) – an absolute no. There is a big difference between country and government.
I had also thought of NS as nothing but another money-making scheme for the Government’s money-grubbing cronies. Think of the extra ringgit embedded in the marked-up costing for the provision of camps, trainers, supplies, etc. Extra ringgit that would go into the pockets of those involved in the racket as kickbacks. Extra ringgit that would be duly paid by the unsuspecting public, i.e. you and me. And all for what?
Compared to Singapore’s National Service, ours is a farce. There, the trainees are attached to the armed forces or the police or the Civil Defence Force and trained for two years. When they come out, they are ready to take up arms if they are called upon to defend their country, or to serve as emergency rescue personnel.
Here, our boys and girls undergo a three-month programme that does not quite train them to be battle-ready. How could you do that in three months anyway? Instead, our orientation is towards developing a young generation who are patriotic, caring, willing to volunteer, active, intelligent, confident and imbued with positive characteristics and good values.
Wow! That’s a big job to do! And again, how could it be accomplished in three months? Whoever thought up those aims must have had unrealistic ambitions.
At the same time, our NS programme is also aimed at enhancing unity among the races. It seeks to do this by bringing together youths of all races. But how can this work when in the larger society, policies made by the Government and actions taken by it have the opposite effect of driving the races apart? As a result, youths of the same race would more likely stick together in the NS camps, reflecting the racial polarisation that exists in the larger society.
We don’t need to have NS to know that this is also the same situation in national schools. And if racial integration is not happening for our youths through their schooling experience, which spans several years, how can it happen in their NS experience, which lasts three months? In fact, according to reports, racism is rampant in the camps, and in one case, a big racial brawl broke out. Is that surprising?
OK, so you don’t find the reasons I’ve cited so far compelling enough to warrant scrapping NS. Then how about the unsanitary conditions the trainees in some camps have to put up with? How about the numerous cases of food poisoning? How about the number of sexual harassment cases that have occurred? How about the number of deaths?
You might say that deaths also occur under the Singapore NS, but do note that the trainees there undergo serious military training. Which means they are exposed to the kinds of dangers and physical stress that our trainees are not exposed to.
What our trainees attend is what someone calls a mere “summer camp”, and yet 23 have died since its inception. You might say that since NS has been going on for nearly 10 years, that works out to only an average of 2.3 deaths a year, but the occurrence of just one death is appalling enough.
The circumstances of the deaths are just as appalling – and confounding. R. Vinoth died of suspected leptospirosis, linked to rat poisoning. How did that happen? Abdul Malik Ishak was found dead in his bed although he had had no prior medical condition. In the cases of Mohd Rafi Ameer, who died of fever after sustaining a swollen leg for seven days, and Mohd Zulhaili Noraihan, who died of bacterial infection of the brain, if camp authorities had acted faster to get them medical attention, their deaths might have been averted.
A. Tamilarasi suffered high fever two weeks after reporting at her NS camp and fell into a coma. She died a year later. P. Prema was found unconscious in a camp toilet and taken to hospital, only to be pronounced dead on admission. Even a viral infection was enough to cause death – to S. Theresa Pauline. And breathing difficulties too – as in the case of Ili Ameera Azlan. Was there negligence here on the part of the camp authorities?
And now there’s even been a murder as well. Muhammad Suhaimi Norhamidi, 18, was bludgeoned to death just two Sundays ago, and three other trainees are being held in remand to facilitate police investigations.
Indeed, who takes responsibility when a trainee dies? Whom can the parents approach for compensation? Who should tender apologies to them?
But then, what good is all that when the life of one’s precious child is already lost? What can comfort the parents when they realise that the child might still be alive if he or she had not been called up for NS?
In May 2008, after 17 trainees had died, Najib Razak, then deputy prime minister, said the Government was targeting zero accidents and fatalities to ensure the success of NS. He said he had instructed camp commandants to be prompt in handling health problems and to prevent undesired incidents. Well, as you can see, the Government hasn’t fulfilled its pledge. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it?
So what do you think? In years to come, how many more are going to suffer eating food infested with maggots, how many more are going to be sexually harassed, how many more are going to die? Whose child will it be next? Are you prepared to take the risk?
If you are not, and you have children to protect, you’ll need to protect them from the Government. From its indoctrination and from the potential of NS in harming them. You’ll need to kill NS before it kills again.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.