On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Out to foster a sense of belonging

Over the past one-week, queries and doubts have surfaced
over how the national service, which would begin in 2004, would be carried out.

Many of these questions and even criticism on how the
programme would be implemented should be taken in the right spirit by the
authorities as they come from Malaysians who wonder how their children would

As parents, they are, understandably, worried how the
children would face up to the drills at the camps and how the
character-building programme, to focus on national unity, would affect them.

But parents should not be unduly worried. With two years
more to go, there should be enough time for the government and public to
contribute ideas to make the Malaysian-style national service an effective one.

Instead of taking pot shots at the proposal, before it
even gets started, Malaysians can adopt a positive approach by writing to
newspapers and government on the kind of content they wish to see.

From the statements made by our Cabinet ministers so
far, the national service does not appear to be centred on military drills and
boot camp discipline in army camps, like those in Singapore.

The six-month programme appears to be more like those at
the outward bound camps which emphasise physical and character building,
besides instilling discipline.

It would certainly be good for many city teenagers,
pampered by modern living and their over-protective parents, who let their
domestic maids do most of the chores at home.

Even the activities of uniformed units in schools such as
cadets, scouts, girl guides and Red Crescent today are no longer as vigorous
and interesting as they used to be.

Many schools in the Klang
Valley, for example, are reluctant
to organise outdoor activities, presumably for safety reasons or camping sites
are simply too far away. So, we see boy scouts in KL camping on school fields

The Cabinet should also ensure that the trainers are
multi-ethnic as the programme is supposed to involve national unity. We should
be realistic enough to accept that racial unity cannot be forged among the
participants within six months, but at least they have a chance to strike up

Language, cultural and religious classes should be an
integral part of the programme. After all, language courses are now compulsory
in our local universities.

Participants should not be confined to learning about
their religions but the courses should involve learning the religion of other

But more importantly, they should be made to appreciate
how the nation's forefathers practised the politics of consensus and moderation
to build the nation.

The young must understand the importance of respecting
the sensitivities of all races in a plural society. Having said that, it is
equally important for the trainers to remember, from the start, that they must
not impose their values and prejudices in these training camps.

These camps should truly reflect the Malaysian setting,
including even the food served, if we are serious about wanting our young to
appreciate each other.

I remember when I was studying in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,
in 1980, how the Chinese students had to go through much red-tape just to
request for halal Chinese food to be served in the canteen.

Despite the support of the student representative
leaders, who were Malays, there were middle-ranking university officials who
attempted to frustrate the petition.

Finally, it was the support of university officials like
Datuk Seri Dr Yusuf Nor, the former Rural Development Minister who was then a
vice-chancellor, which made it possible.

The Cabinet has sensibly included representation from the
main races in the committee set up to implement national service.

One main concern over the implementation is the duration,
with fears that it would disrupt the further studies of students.

This can be resolved by setting the programmes in
components of two months per stint.

I am sure the authorities will allow flexibility in the
implementation of the national service but it must be firm in dealing with
those who attempt to seek exemption on purported medical grounds.

The national service programme deserves the support of
all Malaysians as it aims to foster a sense of belonging and a sense of duty
and responsibility to the nation.

We should ensure that the national service programme does
not end up like Rukun Tetangga and Rakan Muda, where taxpayers' money went down
the drain because of poor planning and response.

Let's give our young people a chance to eat, play, pray
and work together.