KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia has scrapped the controversial 14-year old National Service programme, saying it had failed to create more patriotic and civic-minded youth amid a tightening of government spending.
Also abolished on Monday (Aug 13) was the National Civics Bureau, known by its Malay initials BTN, whose training programmes have been accused of teaching the racial propaganda of the previous Umno-led Barisan Nasional government.
Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman said the decision to scrap these two programmes was made decided in two previous Cabinet meetings.
Staff and resources of these two programmes will be absorbed into other ministries.
“The NS and BTN will be replaced with new programmes that can build future youths that have vision and strong personal character.”
“The new programme, which would be managed by Youth and Sports Ministry, will involve a restructuring of functions, positions, allocations of finance and assets,” he told reporters at the Parliament lobby.
The NS programme was introduced in Feb 2004 amid worries then over racial polarisation and lack of patriotism among youths.
Between 2004 and 2016, participation was mandatory for boys and girls aged 18 who were randomly selected to spend three months in remote purpose-built camps that were often referred to as summer camps. Since 2016 however, those who took part were volunteers and stayed for just two months.
The programme has been criticised for its high budget, with occasional reports of food poisoning and sexual assault. At least 23 youth were killed in accidents and by diseases during these NS stints, according to media reports.
Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said early this month in Parliament that of the RM8 billion (S$2.7 billion) spent for the NS programme, 43 per cent went to the rental of these remote camps alone. He did not give a timeframe for the expenditure.
Former premier Najib Razak suspended the NS training in 2015, saying this would save RM400 million for the year. It was restarted the following year.
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance in its election manifesto promised to abolish the NS, claiming it is wasteful and has failed to meet its objectives of instilling patriotism and civic-mindedness in young people.
Part of the NS training includes attending courses organised by BTN.
The Bureau began as a youth research unit in 1974 under the Youth Ministry, but was re-established as a unit of the Prime Minister’s Department in 1981.
Mr Saddiq said that the new youth programme will involve collaboration with multiple ministries and agencies such as the Prime Minister’s Department, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Defence Ministry.
“Also involved are non-governmental organisations such as youth organisations to fine-tune an effective implementation mechanism.
Mr Syed Saddiq said that these efforts reflect the government’s aspirations to ensure the new programme is inclusive, transparent, and free from political and racial elements.
Mr Saddiq had previously said that the BTN had deviated from the principles for which it was set up and had been manipulated for political purposes.
In 2009, the states of Selangor, Penang and Kelantan - then run by opposition groups PH and Parti Islam SeMalaysia - banned their students and civil servants from attending BTN courses.