Tuesday, Feb 17, 2004

Traffic jams, tears mark starting day of
Malaysia's national service call-up


More than 28,000 youths from different ethnic groups reported yesterday in Malaysia's first national service call-up aimed at boosting patriotism and racial integration.
A group of teenage girls arrive yesterday at a training camp in Kuala Kubu Baru, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, to take part in a new national service program the government hopes will help build patriotism and develop racial harmony. - PHOTO: AP
They are from among some 85,000 teenagers who have been chosen at random from more than 480,000 girls and boys born in 1986 for three-month stints in 41 camps around the country.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said there was no political agenda behind the program, but the main opposition Islamic Party has charged that it is aimed at indoctrinating Muslim youths to support the ruling coalition.
The government says the objective of the 500-million-ringgit (US$132 million) program is to build a generation of self-confident, patriotic youths with noble values and develop multiracial harmony and unity.
Three decades of affirmative action for the majority Malay community and an Islamic resurgence have divided Malaysian society along religious and racial lines.
Malays account for some 60 percent of the country's 25 million people, while ethnic-Chinese make up some 26 percent and Indians 8 percent.
The program does not involve weapons handling but physical training includes unarmed military-style exercises such as basic self-defense and jungle survival skills. Recruits will wear paramilitary-style uniforms, perform community service and take classes on patriotism, nation-building and character-building.
The scene was chaotic at many pick-up points around the country, where angry and worried parents complained of crawling traffic and poor organization as they took their children to catch buses and planes to their campsites.
Some parents also dismissed the scheme as a quick-fix that cannot meet its objectives of nation-building because it only involves 18 percent of those born in the same year, while others criticized the huge budget allocation.
"This is just a motivation camp. I am not sure what the government really expects to achieve. It does seem a waste of money. With 500 million ringgit, they could have built hospitals for village folks," Mohamad Isa, 46, told reporters.
O.F. Chong, 55, also said he saw little benefit for his daughter. He complained he had to endure a two-hour traffic jam and waited another three hours before finally sorting out her transportation.
It was a teary departure for some teens and their parents, but most of the youths appeared to be looking forward to it.
Lalith K., who is going to a camp in the northeast, said she was excited to begin her adventure in a new place and meet new people.
"This is my first time away from home, no maids to wash my clothes, so it's a good chance for me to learn to be independent. I don't expect good food there, so it will also be good for me to lose some weight," she said.
The second batch of recruits will begin training on March 22 and the third on April 19. Those who evade training can be jailed for up to six months.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"