On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let’s help make NS work

The NS to bring Malaysian youths together is a noble idea but obviously the implementation has not been good. 

Review need not necessarily be a bad word. No one is talking about scrapping the project. But like any project, we need to find out where we can improve on it and right now the NS needs plenty of that. 

For a start, the NS may want to consider scaling down the number of trainees for subsequent camps and the duration. It is a long-term project and surely there is no rush. 

The National Service Training Council is right in pushing for mandatory pre-entry medical check-ups. 

The Health Ministry’s concern of having to administer tests to batches of 35,000 trainees is understandable but if the yearly numbers are smaller, there will be less financial and logistics constraints. 

But surely a more thorough medical job can be carried out. We are talking about human lives here and with 12 deaths, including seven health-related ones already reported, the authorities better sit up and listen. 

Parents have every reason to demand the best. No parent would want to send their teenage children for NS, no matter how much spin the authorities want to make through the media, if a living hell awaits them. 

The Health Ministry’s role is crucial in the running of these camps. 

Obviously, the council must include the ministry’s representatives as trainers themselves need to have the skills to handle emergencies. 

There must be enough personnel, including paramedics with access to facilities such as ambulance services, at every camp. There can be no compromise when it comes to human lives. 

It is assuring to hear council chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye saying that he would revive an old request by the council to post a doctor in each camp. 

Although he has been on the receiving end, those who know him understand that he has put in plenty of time and effort for the NS. So has NS director-general Abdul Hadi Awang Kechil, who is a handson official. 

But the public has the right to know the circumstances and details of these deaths — were they caused by illness which could be detected or prevented had there been compulsory medical check-ups? Or they were due to stress, over-strenuous exercise, unhealthy food or other contributing factors? 

Presently, a trainee has to make a self-declaration as to his or her medical condition. The problem is not all trainees can read because we are not dealing with college students but dropouts as well. 

Some, according to those familiar with NS camps, do not even know how to fill up questionnaires. In one case, the trainee did not reveal he had frequent fever because of tonsil problems. 

We may also want to reconsider sending our children to other states. The inter-state integration is good but in terms of practicality, it is another thing. 

Beside the logistics fiasco that has been widely reported in the media, for many low-income families, it is impossible to take the day off to travel on the road for eight hours or fly to Sabah or Sarawak to see how their children are coping with NS. 

If trainees are placed in camps where the driving time is between an hour and two hours, parents would be able to make at least a visit. 

It is essential, as Lam Thye has suggested, to study the physical training module. 

The problem with our NS concept is that no one seems quite clear what it should be, at least in the eyes of many Malaysians. 

It is certainly not the militarystyled NS like in Singapore where trainees know they can expect serious drilling and shooting with live bullets. 

For the less healthy ones, they are assigned to handle administrative duties to allow them to complete the service. In fact, there are no female NS trainees in Singapore and Taiwan. 

But let’s not fool ourselves. There have also been reported fatal cases involving trainees there. 

If our NS camps are not bootleg camps with drill sergeants, neither are they Outward Bound or boy scout camps as they involve strenuous exercises and weapons training. 

Last week, the canteen of a NS camp was shut down after food poisoning was reported. We have a right to know the number of food poisoning cases. The late Prema Elenchan, for example, told her parents before she died that she lived on burgers as she often complained about the food served. 

The post mortem showed that Prema had suffered from fits and drowned in the bathroom, according to reports. 

Surely, camps which are built and managed by the private sector should be run professionally and with sensitivity. 

It is understandably not easy catering food to trainees from various backgrounds. Some like their food spicy while others do not. But instant noodles should not be the option for trainees. 

Discipline is also a crucial area which the police can assist as there have been cases of thefts such as lockers being broken into as well as fights. In fact, a number of commandants and trainers have been dismissed for disciplinary problems. 

But there is no reason to adopt a knee-jerk reaction as the NS has successfully turned out over 265,000 trainees since 2004 and the deaths numbered only 0.002%. 

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, for example, is meeting NS officials on March 15 to discuss ways on how to assist the programme to be more effective. 

Let’s give the NS a chance. We must help make it work.