The NS programme needs a 're-evaluation' and cannot continue under the present circumstances which has left both the parents and trainees worried.
The country’s money-spinning and disastrous National Service (NS) programme has once again made news for the wrong reason. A trainee, R Vinoth, 18, last month died of suspected leptospirosis which is caused by rat poisoning.
Since its inception, the NS programme has been plagued with casualties and problems. Trainees had died due to food poisoning, had been raped, sexually assaulted, drowned and suffered fatal injuries during training.
There was even a racial brawl that broke out among the trainees and still the man who masterminded this ill-conceived programme, the then defence minister and current Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak finds no reason to re-evaluate or simply terminate the NS programme.
Between 2004 and 2008, a total of 339,186 youths had undergone NS training. Statistics show that as of June 2008, 17 deaths had taken place since the NS inception in 2004. Twelve trainees died in the camps and five others died during breaks or within days of completing their training.
Najib, even the present Defence Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is least disturbed with the fatalities taking place during NS training. That explains Ahmad Zahid’s remark that the government had no plans to review the NS training programme following Vinoth’s death in the Terkok camp in Sungai Siput Utara in March.
“The call to suspend or to review the programme is a step backward. We know certain matters cannot be avoided,’’ was Ahmad Zahid’s reply to a supplementary question from Fong Po Kuan (DAP-Batu Gajah) during question time in Parliament.
Is Ahmad Zahid through his “certain matters cannot be avoided” telling parents and future NS trainess that death at the NS camps is unavoidable? That is very creepy, coming from a minister looking after the nation’s safety.
How has re-evaluating or suspending a life-threatening programme become a step backward? It is Ahmad Zahid’s thinking that has to “progress” from its present state.
The most Ahmad Zahid decided to do was to omit water training modules for trainees slated for NS training next month. The Defence Ministry would now consider using swimming pools instead of man-made lakes for future water-based training activities.
Why no concern, Najib?
What will it take for Najib to acknowledge that the NS programme has done more harm than good? He continues to disregard calls for the programme to be axed as according to Najib, “many parties are involved”.
Just who are these “many parties” referred to by Najib? Who really is “benefiting” from the NS programmes – is it the “frightened” trainees or the suppliers of the various periphernalia related to the programme?
Is the NS free of cronyism and corruption? Have certain quarters been awarded lucrative deals in all things related to the NS?
Between 2004 and 2007, a sum of RM2.37 billion was spent on the NS programme. This despite Najib having said that the programme would not cost more than RM500 million a year.
In 2004 some RM608.6 million was spent, 2005 (RM604.8 million), 2006 (RM588.2 million) and in 2007, some RM565 million was spent.
Deaths at NS camps taken lightly
In trying very hard to safeguard the “interest” of those “many parties”, Najib in 2008 revealed his couldn’t-care-less attitude when he dismissed the deaths of NS trainees. The premier said just because 16 participants had died, there was no reason to terminate the NS programme.
To Najib, the 16 deaths represented a mere 0.004% of the 339,186 trainees who had gone through the programme since 2004.
“Out of the figure, 11 trainees died in the camps while another five died outside the camps. Of the deaths reported in the camps, seven were due to illnesses and four due to accidents,” was all that the prime minister could say.
On Feb 15, 2010, NS trainee, Mohd Zulhaili Noraihan, 18, died at the Kem Wawasan Ovai in Papar, Kota Kinabalu. The camp personnel were held responsible over the participant’s death, for their lackaidaisical attitude in providing medical aid.
In January last year, a Sikh NS trainee Basant Singh woke up horrified to see his long hair snipped while he was asleep at the training camp in Penang. No apology was tendered by the National Service and Training Department nor by Najib to the trainee, his family and the Sikh community over the incident which violated the Sikh religious rights.
Making matters worse was Najib’s domineering wife Rosmah Mansor who defended the NS programme. Why did she do that? Is the Najib family a “stakeholder” in the NS programme, that is, the “many parties involved”?
NS needs “re-evaluation”
The NS programme needs a “re-evaluation” and cannot continue under the present circumstances which has left both the parents and trainees worried.
The government’s arm-twisting manner in forcing youngsters to attend the NS training is clearly in the “best interest” of the “many parties involved”. Those who dodge training are liable to a fine of up to RM3,000 and or six months imprisonment. Exceptions are made strictly for those who have physical disabilities or serious medical ailments.
From the original two years to a year and finally reduced to six months, the NS programme was meant to forge camaraderie between the traineees and arrest racial polarisation that has pervaded schools, colleges and universities in Malaysia. Honestly, has the NS succeded in its objectives?
Instead, the lack of counsellors, imbalanced diet for the trainees, poor communication between the various secretariats and the absence of a code of conduct for camp commandants, directors, trainers, facilitators and supervisors have all contributed to NS being a flop.
The National Service and Training Department which comes under the Defence Ministry has failed to solve the most basic of concern, that of hygiene at the training camps, resulting in cases of food poisoning being reported every year.
In January 2009, 155 national service trainees at the Teluk Rubish camp near Lumut suffered from food poisoning after a meal of chicken chop at the camp’s canteen.
In 2005, fears were raised in Parliament about trainees being trained to use firearms, namely the M-16 rifles. Najib had claimed then that it was merely a pilot project but a DAP member revealed that the Parliamentary Select Committee on Unity and National Service had not been informed of the project. The firearms module has since become an official module in the programme.
The trainees are also not required to seek qualified medical opinion when submitting a health status declaration. While they are required to undergo training at government hospitals, this however is not effectively reinforced.
However, these “deficiencies” in the programme make no difference to Najib, who, in trying to portray the NS as a success, had then said:
“I would like to inform the House that the programme has been well-received by the rakyat despite the cases of death. The confidence of the rakyat shows through the applications to voluntarily take part in the programme which has increased from 929 applicants (2007) to 1,137 ( 2008 ).”
Would Najib and Ahmad Zahidi, ike the rest of the parents, face sleepless nights if it was their child drafted to do NS, which ever since its formation has been nothing short of a nightmare?
Jeswan Kaur is a freelance writer and a FMT columnist.