Keep national service and make it better

  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 20 Aug 2018

I SUPPORT the government’s decision to scrap the National Civics Bureau, as announced on Monday. It is an open secret that the Barisan Nasional government used the agency as an indoctrination tool.

But that is not the case with the National Service Training Programme (better known by its Malay acronym PLKN), which will also be abolished, according to Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

The programme should be retained and improved upon, not scrapped.

It has been around since 2003, when it started as a three-month programme for conscripts who were selectively drafted.

Since Malaysia does not have a military form of national service that Singapore and South Korea have, PKLN is seen as an alternative.

Malaysia has a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. The issue of “differences” needs to be addressed.

Our children are living in their own racial cocoons. The current education system is not uniting our young.

Malaysians are drifting apart as never before and politics aren’t helping either.

PLKN was never perfect. It has many weaknesses. Some have even labelled it a failure of the highest proportion.

There has been criticism about its implementation. From time to time, the programme received bad press on indiscipline, poor food and living conditions, and even cases of deaths and rapes in the camps.

Yes, there are horror stories. But sadly, the most ferocious criticism of PLKN has come from those who have never attended the programme.

Have we really heard from the participants themselves? How do they rate PLKN? Have they benefited from the programme?

Has PLKN changed their perspectives about the “others”? Has it achieved the goal of fostering better understanding among the participants of various races? Has it helped develop friendships and bonds among young Malaysians as intended?

More importantly, has there been a comprehensive study on the effectiveness of PLKN in promoting harmony and unity?

In 2016, PLKN 2.0 was introduced, in line with the much-hyped transformation agenda of the previous government. The new focus was on “merging the national agenda with individual development to form a holistic, value-added programme”. They called it the “New PLKN or PLKN Transformation”.

Let’s be objective about its intention – to boost a sense of togetherness among the young. Under current circumstances, we need PLKN more than ever.

I believe the idea of having participants of all races, religions and economic backgrounds living together for a certain period of time is good enough a reason to retain the programme.

We must acknowledge that there is a racial problem in the country. The National Unity Consultative Council was set up in 2013 to address issues of national reconciliation and to reduce racial polarisation.

The council was to propose a blueprint for national unity and social cohesion. It discussed issues within the complexity of Malaysian society – however sensitive or intricate – without fear or favour.

We have yet to see its recommendations being taken seriously. Nor have the three National Harmony Bills been tabled.

Politics aside, an improved PLKN can address many of the issues pertaining to the unity gap among our people.

Yes, unlike the national service programmes of some other countries, only a fraction of the young is conscripted in PLKN.

But at least the numbers are good enough to put the participants in a position to be the catalysts of change.

They are the ambassadors of unity.

Their time at the camps will help mould a better understanding of their differences.

Diversity matters to us.

It can be a double-edged sword; it can be harnessed as our formidable strength and yet it can be our downfall.

Nation-building is not an abstraction. It is real and must be translated into action.

And nationalism is not about waving flags. The same goes for character-building.

We need to bring together our young so that they get the feel of living as one. It makes a lot of sense to nudge them into starting real conversations among themselves.

PLKN 2.0 has largely addressed many of the weaknesses in the earlier versions of the programme. For one, it is based on voluntary entry unlike compulsory balloted entry previously. Before this, the programme did not include skills training.

But more importantly, there was no initiative to utilise former trainees.

Tens of thousands of PLKN “graduates” can be deployed as powerful human resource assets for the future.

Our dependence on foreign workers can be eased. Many of the trainees who do not have the opportunity to further their studies can be trained to join the skilled or semi-skilled workforce.

Scrapping PLKN will save RM400mil a year, we were told. Perhaps we can send 1,000 students abroad with that money. But that kind of argument does not hold water.

The way I look at it, we have to spend money on PLKN, in whatever form it may take later. Give it another name if you like.

PLKN is part of nation-building and nation-building is costly. Unity is something that money can’t buy for a country like ours.

In the true spirit of the month of Merdeka, let’s reconsider the scrapping of PLKN.

Dirgahayu Malaysiaku!

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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