I told Najib about the frank views expressed by the panellists and what could be done to improve the NS programme.
Najib said the Cabinet had discussed the matter at its weekly meeting and concurred that the programme was advantageous despite the glitches and untoward incidents at some camps.
Last week, Najib assured the public that measures would be taken to address any shortcomings and that problems must be acknowledged and addressed.
It is good to hear Najib, who is the minister in charge of the NS, saying that he was prepared to resolve the problems. He should not, in any circumstances, be defensive against criticisms from the public and media.
Parents have the right to expect that their children would be safe when attending the NS programme.
While there seems to be a few operational problems with NS, the media should give the programme a chance to work. The fact is that the programme was hurriedly implemented, and ran into trouble on the very first day when logistics problems arose.
The press should not be barred from reporting incidents at camps. Besides, it is impossible to stop the flow of news in this age of the mobile telephone and Internet.
Suppression of news on incidents involving the NS would be counter-productive and could brew rumours. Once that happens, minor incidents may become exaggerated.
It is therefore necessary for the NS council to set up a media or public relations unit to respond to public queries.
The media should offer constructive criticism by identifying flaws in the programme and offering solutions to rectify these weaknesses. When the NS programme comes up for review in June, the media should be ready with its list of proposals.
In our panel discussion, everyone concurred that the programme was too big to handle. Even Lee and Loh agreed it should be scaled down because of insufficient qualified trainers.
The NS council should seriously consider having a smaller number of trainees for next year's programme. Trainers and facilitators could be trained at the same time to ensure there are adequate hands.
These trainers should include graduate trainees and youth leaders with experience in uniformed units such as Scouts, Girl Guides and the Red Crescent.
Youth leaders should be recruited into the NS instead of signing up government servants who are not committed to making the NS work.
There is also a need to review the role of facilitators (university students) who help man the NS programme in institutes of higher learning. From my university days, I dare say many are not qualified to run the NS programme.
These campus leaders may have leadership qualities but they lack the maturity and ability to handle crisis situations. Some of them even assume that ragging is acceptable.
No one should be surprised that NS problems crop up in the second month when trainees enter the campuses, where the weaknesses are glaring. The security guards are unable to provide adequate control. Changes in the rules and environment affect trainees, who at times cannot differentiate between trainers and facilitators.
The NS council must impose a code of conduct on facilitators to impress upon the participants that there is no favouritism.
The Defence Ministry must give priority to providing staff and financial allocation to the newly created NS Training Department. I am told that facilities are required at the NS Council secretariat and the department.
Unless there is strong backing, directives from the top to the camps and campuses would be lost. For example, I am told that the NS council repeatedly stressed the importance of food sensitivity but the caterers have not taken these orders seriously.
Unfortunately, the blame falls on the council and government. The camp directors and commandants must focus their attention on the implementation level. Any programme if poorly implemented would not succeed.
Officials, regardless of their positions, should carry out their duties effectively – especially when young people are involved. Once the young lose their respect for the trainers, the programme will never work.
Currently, there are three broad categories of participants – school leavers, young working people including school dropouts, and young adults – at the camps. They come from different education, economic and social backgrounds.
While interaction is necessary to prepare our children for real life, the NS council may want a relook at the modules used.
A dropout who has been working for some years is unlikely to accept some of the lessons. Likewise, a married youth would find it even harder to be in the programme.
All three groups have different needs and it would be advisable to consider having separate programmes to ensure that all trainees benefit from NS.
The NS council may also want to listen carefully to the views of youth development trainers, besides the bureaucrats, on how problematic trainees should be handled. It should also draw up guidelines on ethics and a code of conduct for trainers and trainees, including the kind of punishment to be meted out, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the trainers.
Malaysians have plenty to say about how NS can be improved and we believe that Najib would want to hear all suggestions.