At the Military Academy Malaysia, students pursue a degree and undergo military training at the same time. SIMRIT KAUR reports on this unique institution established to increase the number of graduates in the armed forces.
A DEGREE does not guarantee one a job. But for those studying at the Military Academy Malaysia (MAM) or Akademi Tentera Malaysia (ATMA), it does. At Atma, students are paid to study and are offered a job right after graduation.
This does not mean, however, that every Ahmad, Ah Chong or Arumugam is a natural candidate for Atma. Unlike other higher education institutions, Atma students must be academically bright, physically fit and have the right aptitude for military life.
Atma was established in 1995 to develop highly qualified, creative and efficient military leaders. A military ethos is ingrained in Atma students. Since it is a military academy, students must wear a uniform, they are expected to march in step for classes and salute senior officers they pass on the way.
Parminder Singh, 21, had already enrolled for Form Six when he heard about Atma. Even though he had initially wanted to go to university and become a businessman, the chance of a free education was too good to pass up.
“Everything is paid for here and we get a monthly salary as well. My future is bright as, after graduation, I will be appointed as a captain in the army,” says the third year Technology Management student.
Mohd Sharizal Abu, 21, was introduced to Atma by his counselling teacher at school. “I joined Atma as I wanted to ease the burden on my family. Here, my higher education is paid for,” said the Marine Technology major. Because everything is free, he, like many other cadet officers, manages to save his allowance and sends money home.
At Atma, students pursue a Universiti Teknologi Malaysia degree while simultaneously undergoing military training. Although military life takes getting used to, these Pegawai Kadet Siswa, or undergraduate cadet officers as they are called, realise that the benefits far outweigh any short-term discomfort.
Lee Juan Jym, 18, says adjusting to life in a military academy is not a problem as his father is an ex-naval officer. “I fit in easily. The exposure we get here is very different; it helps to change our mindset and make us more disciplined.”
Some, however, could not adjust to a military lifestyle and left. “Those who leave have to pay a penalty, depending on when they go,” says Parminder Singh.
Atma public relations officer Major Kalam Pie RMAF says the attrition rate has dropped over the years. It is now about 5% compared to about 30% for the pioneer batch in 1995. “Atma is more careful in its selection process. Our students are more prepared now. When they come here we talk to them so that they know what to expect.”
The cadet officers live in apartment-style blocks with three rooms to a unit. There are two bathrooms and toilets and a living room but no kitchen. The regimen can be harsh. The day starts with a roll call at 7am, before breakfast. It’s lights out at 10.30pm. And no TV on weekdays.
Parminder Singh, however, says more leeway is given to seniors compared to juniors. “After a while, you get used to it. Being here has taught me to be patient, punctual and positive, and I now know how to wash my own clothes,” he adds.
Faizal Erwan Puzi, 18, loves military life. He says he felt lost before joining Atma. “I did two matriculation programmes before enrolling in Atma. Being a soldier is a very challenging profession,” says the Aeronautical Engineering major.
“This is a unique opportunity. Not many people have the chance to do military training and earn a degree at the same time. I love this place. I feel more comfortable here than in the outside world,” he adds.
To help in the transition process, all cadet officers must undergo a six weeks induction programme, aimed at familiarising them with military life, including weapons training, before beginning their academic programme. “It helps us to adjust from civilian life to that of a soldier,” says Juan Jym.
Unlike other undergraduates, cadet officers at Atma adhere to a high standard of discipline. For example, if you miss classes, your punishment is likely to be sit-ups and laps around the field. “Or we may not be allowed to go out on weekends for a month,” says Juan Jym, adding that he finds the punishment “reasonable and acceptable.”
On weekdays students attend lectures at Atma for their respective degree programmes. Lectures are held in the morning from Monday to Friday. Friday afternoons and Saturdays are devoted to military training.
Upon enrolling, cadet officers must decide which service they would like to join – the army, air force or navy. During the long semester break, they attend specialised training at Ulu Tiram, Johor (army), Lumut, Perak (navy) and Alor Star, Kedah (air force).
Females make up about 10% of Atma recruits. One of them is Nurul Suhaini Mohd Radzi, who says that her parents were not shocked by her decision to enrol in Atma.
“My father is an ex-army officer. My parents approved as they were happy that I would have a job after graduation.” However, she feels that being a girl has its limitations, as females tend to tire more easily than males.
The girls and guys here are very close and Nurul Suhani says that the “male cadet officers are very supportive and help us out whenever they can.”
Major Kalam says that Atma has a 10%-15% quota for women, according to the armed forces requirement. “This is because combat jobs are not suitable for women.”
Every year, more than 1,000 people who meet the requirements apply for a place in Atma. Shortlisted candidates go through a rigorous selection process, which includes two interviews, an IQ test and a public speaking component.
Benefits of Atma
The main lure for most of the students is the fact that their education is sponsored by the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF).
“Not only are their fees, accommodation and food taken care of, students are given a monthly salary too,” says Major Kalam.
The salary starts at RM751 in the first year and reaches RM1,017 by the time they are in the fifth or final year.
In addition, they also receive government allowances and bonuses. In order to graduate from Atma, students need to pass both the academic and military examinations.
Graduates of Atma will be bonded to the MAF for 10 to 13 years. They are commissioned to the rank of captain in the army and air force and a lieutenant in the navy.
The starting pay is RM1,899 for those with an engineering degree and RM1,798 for those with a management qualification.
“Having a university degree also ensures that personnel who leave the armed forces after their compulsory service have better employment prospects,” says Major Kalam, adding that an Atma graduate would be an asset to any organisation.
Atma has changed tremendously since the pioneer intake in 1995. Last year, it moved into its new purpose-built campus in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur, which can accommodate about 1,500 students. The 50ha campus cost more than RM50mil. There is a dining hall, mess, grocery stores, tailor shop, cafeteria, cobbler and sports shop. Academic buildings include several huge engineering workshops and three blocks of student accommodation.
Previously, Atma students would transfer to the UTM campus in Skudai, Johor, after two years. But with the completion of Atma’s new campus, this will no longer be necessary. “They will probably only have to go to the Skudai or Semarak campus in KL for a short period to do practical training,” says Major Kalam.
This year, Atma plans to have 400 recruits, a big increase over last year. Intake into Atma depends on the manpower requirements of the air force, navy and army.
Major Kalam says that educating parents on the benefits of Atma is a major challenge. “Many parents feel that Atma is too tough for their children. They have negative connotations of military life and don’t realise that it inculcates discipline and that it is an honour to serve the country as a soldier.”
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