Tuesday Jun 17 2003

Malaysia sees hope in national service

By Sumathi Bala

When launching a book last week on Onn Jaafar - the founding father of Umno, Malaysia's ruling party - prime minister Mahathir Mohammed appealed to Malaysian youths to protect their heritage and resist attempts by outsiders to take over the country.
Urging them to take a leaf from the country's history, particularly the struggle for independence, Mr Mahathir said: "It will be useful for the present generation, students and everybody to know what happened in the past. They will understand the struggle, love the country more and help make Malaysia a developed nation by 2020," he said.
This desire to instil greater national unity and patriotism among youth was the main reason behind a new national service programme, announced by the government last Friday.
Najib Razak, defence minister, said the programme, due to start in early 2004, would be made compulsory for all 18-year-olds. About 100,000 males and females born in 1986 will be called up in the first year. Teenagers who refuse to join will face fines and up to six months in prison.
The plan is a last-ditch attempt by the authorities to remedy the growing disunity among the country's main races and stem the spread of religious extremism in predominantly Muslim Malaysia.
"(National service) is not a perfect plan, and is costing us a lot of money to implement, but it is better than sitting by and seeing this trend worsen," said the defence minister.
"Mahathir is trying to put a few things right before he leaves. Something needs to be done about the state of disparity among the Malaysian youth. There's been a growing fragmentation of society along ethnic lines, leading to the Islamisation of the Malay community," said Andrew Tan, security analyst at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "Mahathir wants to breach the barriers, because in the long-run it could become divisive and pose a danger to the plurality of the country."
The rise in islamic insurgency is seen as a threat by Malaysia's policymakers. The government has expressed fears about increasing religious militancy, and since mid-2001 has arrested scores of suspected Islamic extremists, many of them allegedly members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah group.
Malaysia's 23m population consists of 60 per cent Malays, 23 per cent ethnic Chinese and 10 per cent Indians.
There has been an air of restrained tension in racial relations since the country achieved independence 35 years ago. In early 2001, a racial riot between Malays and ethnic Indians broke out in a suburban town in the capital Kuala Lumpur, resulting in at least six deaths.
Perhaps more worrying for the government is the growing tide of younger Malaysians leaning towards fundamentalist Islamic opposition parties, and becoming anti-establishment.
"Most of the younger people, particularly the Malays, voted for the opposition in the last election. Mahathir is obviously concerned about losing their support. National service would be one way to bring them back to the mainstream," said Hock Guan, analyst with the Institute of South-East Asian Studies.
Mr Tan echoed the sentiment. "By mixing the races they (the government) hope to deprogramme them of Islamic radicalisation ... nationalism would help counter fundamentalism by instilling unity."
During national service, recruits will get basic military training - including weapons handling - as well as lessons in Malaysia's constitution and "character building" instruction during the three-month service stint.
Analysts were surprised at the speed of the move. "The timing has caught people by surprise because to implement a programme like this requires detailed studies and feedback from various groups. They came up with it after just one year," said Mr Hock.
"Who is going to undertake the training and what are they planning to do? Is this 3 months training a one-off thing, or are the recruits going to be called back again later? And can they commit to do it every year? These details have not been clearly spelled out."
He's sceptical as to whether the programme would bring about the desired effect in teaching the youth to cherish peace and ethnic diversity, and to help the nation face crises. "What if after two years they realise it hasn't achieved the aim of forging unity? What are they going to do then? You can't expect to change people's attitude or mindset in three months."