United we stand

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am

About 30 years ago, whenever I went to the cinema I had to stand to rapt attention as the national anthem was played during a short film before the feature presentation. This 'ritual' was supposed to elicit patriotism. The more patriotic among us would stand, while those whose allegiance was suspect would pretend not to notice the film, which also featured the national flag. When first introduced, almost everyone would stand, but gradually even the steadfast gave way to hecklers who complained that they were there to enjoy a movie, not to show their patriotism. Some cheeky ones even told those who stood not to block their view of the national flag. Eventually, the film was withdrawn.

In multiethnic Malaysia, fostering greater racial unity is a serious matter. There is even a ministry devoted to national unity. One of the weighty issues being looked into is racial polarisation, especially in universities, where undergraduates tend to stick to their own ethnic groups. This runs against what the authorities aspire to; they want the young to see themselves more as Malaysians and not Malaysians of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent.

As a result, 'National Service' has arrived; a programme designed to whip up greater patriotic fervour, foster unity and toughen youngsters. About 18 per cent, or 85,000, of some 480,000 18-year-olds were picked by a computer ballot to undergo a three-month stint in 42 camps nationwide. The first batch of 28,000 recruits started their month-long military training on February 16. They will then move to lecture halls to learn more about national unity and character building for two months. But some 600 did not show up. Tajol Rosli, chief minister of Perak state, suggests that these people should not be considered for government scholarships or jobs.

Lim Kit Siang, head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, says that the programme is a reflection of the failure of 11 years of schooling in the national education system to inculcate good values. Three months, he adds, are just not enough to make them better Malaysians.

But Ong Ka Ting, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association and Minister of Housing and Local Government, believes the programme will produce more disciplined, united and patriotic young people inclined towards inter-racial harmony.

After three months of character building, it is hoped that these future leaders will become better Malaysians, and be proud to stand to attention when the national anthem is played - anytime, anywhere.