By Reme Ahmad
COMPULSORY national service will be introduced for all able-bodied Malaysians - male and female - from 2004, with the six-month stint focused on developing discipline and patriotism, and boosting multi-racial living.
The programme for all 18-year-olds will include basic military training - drills and developing shooting skills - according to proposals revealed by a Cabinet committee set up to develop the plan.
The high-powered committee, chaired by Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak and which made some details public yesterday, said that about 400,000 youths would be in training camps at any one time.
Malaysians who are overseas when called to serve could apply for a deferment for a few years. But 'they will not be able to escape even if they are overseas', he said.
In mooting the national-service idea, officials said they were worried about increasing racial polarisation among the Malays, Chinese and Indians, and a weakening sense of patriotism among youths.
Opposition parties generally backed the idea of putting youths in fatigues to instill discipline and build character.
Asked if anyone would be exempted, Datuk Seri Najib said: 'It will be compulsory except for health reasons, and this must be confirmed by a panel of doctors.' Although the goal is to bring the races together, national service would also have the advantage of strengthening the country's total defence and improving security consciousness.
The national-service concept being mooted here would differ from recruitment for the military and the kind of programme which Singapore has.
But participants will undergo military drills, strict discipline and communal living in camps and might also be asked to perform community service.
The programme's cost, infrastructure needs, and whether the youths would receive allowances have yet to be worked out. Sub-committees to study the law, curriculum, logistics and financial aspects have been formed.
To ensure that a sense of patriotism is instilled before the six-month stints, the education curriculum is also likely to have what he termed 'pre-national service programmes'.
But he did not elaborate on what this would entail.
After their stints, youths would be encouraged to join social and voluntary groups such as civil-defence organisations, or the Red Crescent.
The government intends to meet political parties, non-governmental organisations and the public for discussions to fine-tune the plan.