THE sounds of sobbing in the darkened room as the last strains of the song Warisan faded off scared the hell out of me.
It was not the fear that I, as a Malaysian Malay, would lose our country to the “others” if I was not careful, as the song preached.
Nor was it the fear of losing my roots when I am all alone as a student in a foreign country; or worse, of being unknowingly apostasised if I became too friendly with the Brits at university – as the facilitators had painstakingly drummed into us throughout the week-long Biro Tatanegara (BTN or the National Civics Bureau) course for government scholarship recipients.
It was the fear of being found out as an ingrate, as the pressure grew overwhelming among the participants to show that you have fully internalised the lessons that the military-like facilitators had been trying to impart.
I am ashamed to say I gave in to my fear, and I pretended to cry.
Warisan or “Heritage” is a song familiar to those who have attended any BTN course in their lifetime.
The supposedly nationalistic song is an integral part of BTN’s module to fire up patriotism and instil the appreciation of the Malay heritage.
While some say the lyrics are beautiful and meaningful – it is admittedly poetic – others claim it is a bit “racialised” with its emphasis on Malay unity against the hidden “enemies” in our midst that are intent on robbing the Malays of our homeland.
For a teen from a small northern town with good friends of various races as yours truly, and one who grew up being told to never forget her mixture of Indian and Indonesian ancestry, it was one disturbing song.
Even now, almost 30 years on, and despite the fact that the “muggle” in me has made peace with itself, I find it difficult to stay unbiased as the debate on BTN rears its ugly head again.
The BTN was set up in the 1970s as a Youth Research Unit under the Youth Ministry.
But by the 1980s, the obscure agency had evolved into the BTN as we know now and was placed under the Prime Minister’s office.
It’s objective is to nurture the spirit of patriotism among Malaysians, and train them into future leaders who are “well-rounded intellectually, emotionally and spiritually” to support the national development efforts.
For decades, BTN has been training scholars, public servants, university students and youths with courses that, on paper, is good for the country.
But BTN has become a controversy.
Many of those who have gone through BTN’s programmes claim that the training explicitly promotes ketuanan Melayu (Malay superiority) and Barisan Nasional.
Some of the participants say they feel like they were being inducted to a secret club for the ruling elite.
Former BTN participant Amir says: “They isolate the trainees and inductees, and the course seems to be run with the strategy of breaking down the individuals with lack of sleep and physical exhaustion while pummelling them with non-stop lectures and mind games.”
Other BTN participants have also mentioned about going through packed days that began as early as 4am, and ended as late as 2am.
Activities include tazkirah (religious talks), lectures, group tasks, discussions and adventure exercises like hiking and abseiling.
Trainees were completely cut off from their families or friends, without access to the outside world or the media.
But in the age of the Internet and social media, it is getting difficult to keep people isolated and things hidden from the public, he says.
That is why he believes it was only in the noughties that BTN caused a major public furore when some of its course content and incendiary exchanges during the regular sessions were leaked.
One incident that irked many was an alleged case of a high-ranking BTN officer who called the Chinese “slitty eyed” and Indians “alcoholic” in 2009.
The recent leaks of slides used in the BTN course again expose the alleged racial and partisan political leanings.
As reported, BTN had folders on its website with slides claiming that “racism can unite a race” and warning of the negative influences of “unsavoury” Malays such as online interfaith community Projek Dialog editor Ahmad Fuad Rahmat; former student leader Adam Adli Abdul Halim; political secretary for MP Lim Kit Siang Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud; and the prominent Malay group G25.
And most perplexing is the list of local independent publishers and Indie musicians and artists, who BTN warned are “masterminds” of an anti-establishment movement in the country.
That has led to more calls to abolish BTN.
One staunch critic is DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang who said BTN must go for its alleged promotion of racism.
Lim also feels BTN is a gross waste of public funds. He reportedly claimed the country has spent over RM1.1bil on the bureau since its inception.
He also alleged the distorted teachings in BTN contributed to the increasing racial and religious polarisation in the country.
Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Razali Ibrahim, who is in charge of the BTN, refutes the allegations against the bureau.
“BTN has never condoned racism. And how can there be any element of racism when the programmes are opened to all races?” he asks.
Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) chief executive officer Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah says at the very least, BTN must be reviewed, “You have to admit that not all BTN participants had a bad experience and found it racist.”
A main problem, he opines, is that BTN does not have a clear definition of what patriotism is, “so the facilitators don’t really have a curriculum that can educate participants on what it means to be patriotic and the needs of being patriotic.”
“And because you don’t really have a curriculum or module on patriotism, it is left to the facilitators to interpret it in her or his own understanding and beliefs, and I think this where the problem arises – some facilitators become overzealous,” says Saifuddin, who was not only a participant in a BTN course but also later became a facilitator for the bureau.
The BTN had always served to be an agency to inculcate patriotism and not Malay supremacy, as allegedly being promoted now, he adds. “I don’t remember Malay supremacy being a topic...it was purely patriotism and to enhance civic mindedness.
“Has it lost its way then? I think it’s about time we review its existence, and if need be, abolish it, but we need to look at the whole picture before we make any decisions.
“It is important to review the curriculum, content and facilitators – the references they use in the course, recruitment of facilitators and their training,” he says, highlighting that from his own experience of BTN, the courses had always had a good mix of participants of diverse races.
He stresses that other elements such as basic understanding of the pillars of the nation like the Constitution and Rukunegara; political education; and interfaith understanding, should be included in a BTN module.
“Ultimately, we should break the stereotyping of patriotism,” he says. It’s not about rhetorics, songs or marching and waving flags.
“If someone comes up with an idea to plant trees, for example, or a recycling project, to save Malaysia’s environment, that is patriotic too,” he says.
To ensure that the BTN is suitable for all, the agency must not only open the courses to more non-Malays but also recruit more non-Malays to become facilitators and BTN staff.
Saifuddin believes that a more pressing issue is whether BTN is a good use of public funds.
“We have spent a lot of money in schools to instil patriotism. For example, we already have a patriotism element in our new History curriculum and we have the national service, although if I have to choose, I’ll choose BTN instead of national service which costs more to run.”
As another who has been on both divides of BTN as a trainee and trainer, Kuala Selangor MP Datuk Dr Irmohizam Ibrahim says the Government’s civics bureau and its courses are still relevant to Malaysia today.
“It is a question of perception. In fact, the BTN is trying to rebrand itself and its module to be more inclusive, including a name change,” says Dr Irmohizam, highlighting that the new modules are more intellectual and have a stronger emphasis on nation building.
Dr Irmohizam, who is also Umno Supreme Council member and a core executive member of 1M4U, says his experience in attending a BTN course only left him with sweet memories and useful knowledge.
“As a participant when I was a university student, I was happy, because there were more physical activities for team building, and as the course was open to all student leaders nationwide, I was able to meet and form friendships with student leaders from other universities and build my networking.”
Not so for Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) chief executive officer Wan Saiful Wan Jan who had to attend two BTN courses, one in 1992 before he pursued his studies in the United Kingdom and again in a refresher course midway during his studies.
“I found it racist even then – it was used to promote Malay interests, and even in front of non-Malay participants the speakers were championing Malay rights and saying that Malays owned the country. But it was not only about Malay rights – it was also about Umno.
“They preached about how it was the only party that can be trusted to run the country. They made it quite clear that BTN has no other purpose than to protect the interests of the ruling party,” he says.
For him, the crux of the issue here is the use of taxpayer’s money for partisan purposes.
“It is an open secret that there are many programmes masquerading as public education programmes but are really partisan party programmes run by various government agencies.
“It is not just Umno or BN or the federal government who do this, state governments run by opposition parties are also doing it –everyone’s doing it and we need to change that,” he argues, stressing that the way to stop this practice is to enact laws that can punish those who abuse public money, especially for party purposes.
Wan Saiful strongly believes that BTN needs to be abolished as it is also redundant.
“There is no need for an agency like BTN, the Government is already spending a lot of money in schools for various programmes to build character and motivate people.”
With the mixed views on BTN, the jury is still out on whether the national bureau is a hotbed of racism and intolerance, and as Razali had argued in Parliament, more evidence is needed.
Perhaps, the best proof is to gather feedback from the hundreds of thousands of those who have gone through BTN courses to ascertain if it needs to be revamped, or axed.
Next week: Sunday Star talks to Indie scenesters and Malay liberals on the BTN.