The call of duty Like it or not, over 100,000 school-leavers will have to heed the call to national service next year. GAVIN GOMEZ and JOANNE LIM talks to those affected by this historic move.
PRIVATE higher education operators can breathe a sigh of relief now that details regarding the implementation of the national service programme have been made public.
“The impact on the private higher education industry appears to be minimal. There should be no cause for concern,” says National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) president Dr Mohd Talha Alithamby.
When tabling the National Service Bill in Parliament on Wednesday, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak painted a clear picture for operators, parents and students when he announced that intake into the programme would take place in seven batches of about 16,000 students each.
“We have to look at things in perspective. Of the 16,000 students called up for national service, about 50% would consist of bumiputra students who plan to enter public universities.
“Assuming the remaining half consists of an equal number of non-bumiputra students who plan to study in private institutions of higher learning and public universities (half and half), then we are looking at only a few thousand students being affected,” he says.
Prior to Najib’s announcement, private colleges were even contemplating pushing their main January intake to May, assuming that all those called up for national service would commence their three-month programme simultaneously from February.
The minister announced two weeks ago that the 100,000 youths who turn 18 next year would be randomly selected to undergo a three-month stint of national service aimed at enhancing the spirit of patriotism among youths and for character building.
The programme, which was approved by the Cabinet on May 28, is compulsory for those selected. Those who refuse to participate can be fined RM3,000 or jailed for six months, or both.
As Malaysians typically prioritise education, it was no surprise that the immediate concern of parents was how the national service would “disrupt” their children’s pursuit of higher learning. The Chinese community, for example, are in favour of national service but want education to take priority.
Several Chinese community organisations contacted by Nanyang Siang Pau told the daily that the authorities should ensure that the education of youths will not be affected by the scheme. “Now that we know there are seven batches for entry, we can better plan our children’s education as they know which batch they are assigned to,” parent Billy Wong says.For Form Five school leavers intending to enrol for Form Six or matriculation, Najib said his ministry would discuss their intake dates with the Education Ministry.
For those planning to enter private colleges or universities early next year, Dr Talha says it would not be a problem for them to “release” students for three months for the national service programme.
Acknowledging that intake patterns into private colleges would be affected in some way or another, he adds: “We can easily make some minor adjustments.”
“Associations (of private institutions of higher learning) want to be more involved. We hope the national service committee will call us for future meetings to discuss in detail the implementation of the programme. “We have a lot to contribute, whether in curriculum or planning,” he says.
Inti College Malaysia’s vice-president (academic affairs) Dr Chia Swee Ping says students wanting to pursue tertiary education will do so whether or not they get the call up for national service.
“In fact, I think it would be a great break for students. Those who commence classes in January but have to enrol for national service in September, for example, can treat their three-month stint as a break from studying.
“Deferring a semester of study is common. Students do it for various reasons. Those who have to go for national service can just defer one semester and pick up where they left off. National service will not affect private colleges significantly,” he says.
Monash University Malaysia pro-vice chancellor Prof Robert Bignall says the programme will have negligible impact on private universities.
“Students have to obtain a pre-university qualification from a private college before coming to us so we should not face any problems,” he says.
Dr Talha feels parents should not worry too much about their children’s education as whatever teething problems that may arise as a result of the introduction of national service will be ironed out.
“National service is a national requirement. We are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate whatever changes needed,” he adds.
Members of the committee that came up with the details of the announced national service programme comprise representatives from non-governmental organisations, chief editors of newspapers, representatives from the National Youth Council, Chinese and Indian youth movements, public universities and the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation.
At his parliamentary address, Najib said the consultation process was still open to any party that wants to present its view on how the programme could be improved.
He pointed out that Malaysia’s national service programme was not modelled after that of another country and that it was “a la Malaysia”, nor was it a military based mobilisation programme.
What it’s all about
The objectives of the programme are threefold:
Dr Talha is of the opinion that participation in national service should count towards academic credits. “This proposal would motivate students to take up national service and it would not disrupt programmes conducted by institutions of higher learning,” he adds.
He says the Government should also plan for post-national service programmes to ensure that students would not forget what they had learned during their three-month stint.
Najib added that the programme would place priority on uniformity and towards that purpose it would have its own image.
“Participants will be supplied with uniforms and have their own anthem and songs that reflect the identity of national service,” he said.
In the three-month programme, which comprises a month-long camping stint and a two-month stay at hostels of public universities, participants would have to undergo basic training in several aspects: military, understanding the constitution, character building, and community service.
“Participants will also undergo physical activities covering basic marching, rappelling and abseiling, navigational training, obstacle course training, introduction to living skills, jungle trekking, river crossing and introduction to the use of weaponry,” Najib said.
Napei is particularly interested in the community service component, as this is where public and private companies can come forward to help.
“In Britain, there is a youth programme called the Community Volunteer Service that is very successful. Perhaps we should draw from their 30 years of experience,” says Dr Talha.
He proposes that funding for this component be drawn from public and private sector contributions.
“Making students do community service will have a great impact on them in the long run as it would make them more civic-minded,” he says.
Quoting a survey of 6,000 youths aged 15 to 17, Najib told Parliament that 81% of the respondents were supportive of the programme.
“Another 72% agreed that the training be applied to both males and females,” he said of the survey carried out across the country.
Najib explained in Parliament that budget constraints limited the national call-up to 100,000 school leavers.
“It is not impossible to increase the number of participants in following years,” he said.
Form Five student Michael Wong feels it is unfair that only 100,000 students will be picked. “What about the remaining 380,000 students? Will they ‘escape’ national service?” he asks.
A mother, Zalina Kassim, on the other hand, is worried about her daughter’s safety.
“Will they separate guys and girls? Are adequate facilities in place to accommodate the large numbers?” she says, echoing similar concerns of other parents.
“Are our kids ready to deal with guns?” asks Wong, another anxious parent.
As a mother of two daughters, one in Form Five and the other in Year Five, Irene Lim feels the programme should not be compulsory for all students as at 18, children are still “finding their identity”.
“They will definitely need to seek counselling once they complete the programme. They are 18-year-olds trying to find their identity, fighting with their parents, and thinking that they are always right.
“They need family guidance, not be forced into national service,” says Lim.
However absurd or extreme the concerns raised by parents and students, the reality of the matter is that certain details may only really be known once the first batch of “conscripts” enter training in February.
“Only time will tell,” Dr Talha says, adding that the national service programme needs about five years before it can run without hitches.
“We have to work together to continually refine it,” he says.