On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Recurring hiccups at NS

After four years, one would have thought that this sort of mix-up should not happen but it has recurred since the National Service programme was launched in 2004. 

Providing transport for the trainees at pick-up points is a basic necessity and if those involved in the running of the NS programme are unable to handle it, they should be sacked. 

It is obvious that the departments involved in the NS operations – which come under the Defence Ministry – need to be revamped. 

The public can understand, and even forgive, the hiccups and confusion on Feb 16, 2004, when many pick-up points nationwide were in disarray. It took almost the entire day before most of the 28,000 teenage trainees were settled at their camps. 

Some of the participants, accompanied by their parents, had turned up at the pick-up points as early as 4.30am. 

We were told there were "teething problems" and that "action would be taken to rectify them". 

In April 2005, the NS transport problem was again in the news. This time, bus operators in Selangor threatened to disrupt field trips if they were not paid for their services. 

One excursion involving 400 trainees at Kem Setia Ikhas in Semenyih was cancelled when the owner of two buses did not send the vehicles because he was not paid. 

In July, 40 Perak schoolbus operators who provided transport at six camps claimed they were owed RM300,000 and had to wait four months for their money. 

It was the same story last week. Over 800 trainees in Kelantan were told to go home because 19 of the 36 buses hired to ferry them did not have the required permits. 

Another 1,000 trainees bound for camps in Sabah and Sarawak were "stranded" for up to 12 hours at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal due to hiccups in flight arrangements. 

Fingers have been pointed at the Road Transport Department but the officials of the Defence Ministry's Jabatan Perolehan (Procurement Department) have much to explain for the recurring problems. 

For instance, the selection criteria for the six bus operators in the six zones in the peninsula. Surely there should have been stringent rules to ensure that these operators use roadworthy buses with proper permits. 

These operators had successfully bid for the contracts, reportedly amounting to between RM500,000 and RM2mil, so they should not be allowed to sub-contract the service to middlemen. And they certainly must not try to cut cost by using school or factory buses. 

The six operators are responsible for sending the trainees to camps. Another group of operators are responsible for transport around the camps, such as transporting trainees to and from their outdoor activities. 

It has been suggested that army trucks be used but most parents are against this idea for safety reasons. 

Unfortunately, NS Training Council chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye has been blamed for the problems. Some people have even called for his resignation.  

He has become the face of NS because he has worked hard to make the programme a success but he does not have a magic wand. Neither does he have the executive powers and authority. 

Since his appointment in 2005, no one can deny that he has resolved several problems involving food and leave from training during major festivals. 

Transportation glitches aside, trainees have complained about the lack of manpower at pick-up points. In some places like Penang, only a handful of officers were present to register several hundred trainees. And the officers worked from a printed master list, not from computers. 

Poor supervision and lack of staff are to be blamed for such inadequacies. The demands of having to deal with a huge turnout should have been expected and dealt with smoothly. 

To accuse the JPJ of sabotaging the NS training programme is ridiculous. The JPJ has, in fact, carried out its job well by stopping those buses which did not have proper permits because the safety of the trainees is a priority. 

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has good reason to be angry because the Defence Ministry comes under his purview. 

He has correctly called for a full investigation. He should now consider transferring out those officials who are not interested in the NS programme. 

The NS programme has been accepted by Malaysians, thus the Government should not allow a few rotten apples to kill the enthusiasm of the trainees and parents.