National Service: Nation-building exercise needs deeper thought and scrutiny

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In 2007, I was drafted to join the National Service (PLKN) programme in Kem Segari, Manjung, Perak. Although I hated the idea at first, I found PLKN rewarding enough that I considered joining the military.

Not all trainees’ experiences were positive. Considering the huge cost of PLKN 1.0 and 2.0 and unclear outcomes, resistance to PLKN 3.0 is valid and must be resolved by the Defence Ministry.

1. Trainees’ safety must be top priority

No parent should send their child away only to have them return injured or dead. In 2013, Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Abd Rahim Bakri told Parliament that PLKN 1.0 and 2.0 reported 20 deaths, 1 rape case, 442 misunderstandings/fights, and 242 police reports. Due to the haphazard rollout of PLKN 1.0, camp infrastructure was shoddy, while food hygiene was not standardised across camps.

To prevent a repeat of the past, the PLKN Establishment Committee and Council must hold in-depth discussions with trainers, parents, past trainees, and youth representatives. All military camps and police training centres designated for PLKN 3.0 must be thoroughly inspected for safety. To maintain discipline and manage conflict, there must be a disciplinary and complaints tribunal on an individual camp or state level. The tribunal should outline guidelines for reporting issues by all stakeholders and requirements for escalation to authorities like hospitals and the police. There must be zero tolerance for harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

2. Citizenship modules must be relevant and celebrate diversity

A day in the life of a PLKN 1.0 trainee: wash up, file into order for morning exercise, breakfast, followed by civics classes. Afternoon consisted of physical and marching drills, jungle expeditions, and water confidence activities. Towards the end of the 2nd month, we were taught how to handle M16 Colt rifles (not enough time to become a sharpshooter). Evening was spent in the jungle or listening to lectures on how to be a better person, etc.

To be frank, most slept through the civics classes and lectures – first, because we were tired from the physical activities, secondly because it was boring.

If the goal is to produce youths that are resilient, energetic and are keen on nation-building, the proportion of 90% military exercise and 10% civics needs rebalancing. Collaboration between the Education Ministry, Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS), and NGOs like Architects For Diversity (AOD) is needed to develop meaningful, interactive, up-to-date civic modules conducted by ethnically diverse trainers so that trainees interact outside their comfort zone and benefit from a multiracial, multicultural setting which they may not always encounter in their daily lives.

3. Service-based modules to bring youth, local communities, and the military together

The general Malaysian public is removed from our military and related agencies. Some may think derogatorily, “Wah, no war, not much work to do la,” while reality is different.

Published in 2019, Malaysia’s 1st Defence White Paper (DWP) aims to instil a security culture amongst the rakyat through one of its pillars, Comprehensive Defence, to enhance the nation’s security readiness. Security readiness is not pure military strength, but involves improving social cohesion – unity, resilience, and robustness – when shocks occur, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 floods disaster or the Russo-Ukraine war.

PLKN can help in building social cohesion and a security culture through service-based modules, where both trainees and trainers engage the local community outside their camp and come up with projects or initiatives benefitting the community. These projects can be guided by relevant NGOs or private sector partners looking to do corporate social responsibility (CSR). The desired result: both local community and military learn from each other and share experiences to strengthen social cohesion.

4. Make National Service 2 years like Singapore, Germany, and South Korea

One of the 3 phases proposed for PLKN 3.0 includes welcoming by agencies such as the fire department, civil defence, police force or military force, making trainees more eligible for a permanent position after going through the normal recruitment process.

The recruitment pipeline towards agencies is a good move, but the standing 45-days proposal would fall into the “summer camp” trap. Although Malaysia is not at war, we should look at developing PLKN 3.0 towards the 2-year model of Singapore, Germany, or South Korean model. This will expand and diversify recruitment options for the military and other civil defence and service authorities.

For SPM leavers who have not decided on career choices or where to pursue tertiary education, the 2-year model would allow them space to explore a different surrounding and gain skills before reevaluating their choices that will have a major impact on their adult years. However, the question of allowances or salaries in that 2 years will have to be calibrated.

PLKN offers a world of benefit and exposure to our youth, but meaningful effort must be made to lay the foundation right.


Kampung Tunku State Assemblywoman and DAPSY International Secretary

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