It may not be the best idea but a start has to be made. In the case of the NS, the pioneer batch is about to complete the compulsory three-month programme and the second batch has begun.Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said that the government was aware of the problems faced by the participants since it was launched, promising the government would look into the problems.
While Abdullah did not go into specific details, the Cabinet has certainly discussed many times the success and failures of the programme on numerous occasions.
Last week, the NS council chairman Datuk Dr Ahmad Fawzi Mohd said the concept and approach of the NS would be reviewed to ensure it achieved its goals, adding that a post-mortem would be held in June following the completion of training for the first batch of trainees. He urged all parties, including parents, the media and non-governmental organisations, to cooperate and come up with suggestions to help the council resolve its weaknesses.
Dr Ahmad's constructive approach is certainly commendable because the fact is that there are problems with the way the NS has been implemented. There have been allegations and reports of fights, theft, extortion, bullying and even sexual harassment.
There is little point in being defensive and getting angry with those who highlight these incidents to the authorities and the newspapers. The authorities can brush aside these problems and pretend they did not take place. What is more important is how best the authorities can prevent such unfortunate incidents from taking place as it has given the NS programme a bad image at the expense of the positive work.
If we wish to make the NS effective, we must be honest in dealing with these problems. Editors at newspaper offices have become counsellors to parents and trainees who complained of problems at these camps.
Many comments sent via e-mail, including some unhappy ones, have been forwarded by the media to those involved in the NS to ensure that these problems are properly addressed.
We agree that glitches and even oversights must be expected in a programme of such magnitude and disciplinary problems can be expected as the participants come from all backgrounds, including those with tough social origins.
Parents would surely prefer their children to interact with peers from the same background but that would deny them the experience of dealing with people from other, diverse economic upbringing.
It is a practical way to work with people from different races, religions and cultures, but we also do not want our young to experience bitter problems at these camps. Every effort must be made to ensure these camps emphasise multi-culturalism, from the way these trainees are taught at classes to the food that is served at the canteens. For example, the camp directors must ensure that there is a good alternative for Hindus who do not eat beef.
>From my discussions with members of the NS council, I learnt that the problems began during the second month of training when the participants were transferred to the institutes of higher learning. Unlike the camps during the first month, where security is better organised, the arrangement is more lax on the campuses.
It will also be reassuring if military personnel can be posted to the campuses to ensure that security is maintained. The police should also run random checks on the backgrounds of the participants to ensure that those with criminal records are made known to the facilitators.
The problem, I am told, are school dropouts and delinquents with records of being bullies in schools. These culprits have brought their bad habits to these camps.
Then, there are even cases of participants who are married but have enrolled at these camps as required under the law. Surely, they must be out of place even if they have behaved well.
The NS council should seriously consider inviting participants, parents, trainers, the media and experts in the various fields to give their assessment when the review begins. Other aspects should even include the logistics and transport arrangements.
The council may also want to consider drawing up a training programme for the trainers themselves to ensure that they are effective in dealing with trainees, although most would already have experience in youth activities.
There have been suggestions that the NS camps be run on a small scale to allow the trainers to have better control over the trainees. It is certainly something for the authorities to ponder.
The programme has certainly not been well-planned from the beginning and even badly implemented, as much as we refuse to admit it. There was no pilot project to determine its feasibility and to identify the possible weaknesses but the powers that be were only too eager to go ahead with it.
But there is a chance to put it right if we are ready to admit the mistakes and move along, perhaps on a smaller scale and shorter duration with better supervision.
It is good that Dr Ahmad, who has experience in reserve army training, has adopted an open attitude as constructive criticism about the NS should not be regarded as a loss of face or being politically motivated. Neither should the media be blamed for reporting incidents that take place in camps.
The majority of Malaysians support the NS programme but there have been genuine concerns about the way it has been managed. An honest review would certainly help to make the programme more effective.