Saturday, March 19, 2005

10] De-Militarizing the Malaysian National Service

by Azly Rahman

“Seorang remaja dari Kangar, Perlis … yang gagal melaporkan diri menyertai PLKN tahun lalu menjadi tertuduh pertama di negara ini dihadapkan ke mahkamah atas kesalahan itu… . Ini merupakan kes pertama membabitkan 4,269 peserta PLKN yang gagal melaporkan diri siri pertama latihan itu tahun lalu, yang dihadapkan ke mahkamah” reads an Utusan Malaysia report on The Malaysian National service.

I cannot understand why the youngster from Perlis need to be brought to court for refusing to participate in the Malaysian National Service. This is wrong especially when the youngster is picked at random to begin with. It means that not only was he chosen by chance, but he was brought to court as an example to others that it is a government’s prerogative to force the youth to be indoctrinated in some army camp.

Why choose to display our poor understanding of the concept of education as such? Why chose the youngster from Perlis as a National Scapegoat? Is it because he hails from the remote state that is known for its soft-spoken-ness, laid-backness, silence and simplicity?

As one who has been for decades involved in the business of respecting, nurturing, and expanding the mind of Malaysians and Americans, this image of the creation of Spartans chills and troubles me. In my capacity as educator “in the classroom and outside of the classroom across the lifespan” as the slogan for Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, puts it, I am concerned with the way we force-feed what we want our children to learn.

Our youth should not be subjected to a National Service –type of regiment but to a program of creativity and problem-solving based on the latest principles of humanistic teaching and learning.

There should be no “one-size-fits-all” formula, such as The Malaysian National Service formula, for the development of the mind of the youth.

As many educationalists are aware, the MRSM system is modeled amongst others, after the renowned Bronx School for the Gifted in Science in the city of New York; a school that produced Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Half-baked philosophy

Just like the Smart Schools project, The National Service is based on a half-baked philosophy of teaching and learning.

The National Service is based on the philosophy of anti-humanism; a philosophy governing the government’s attempt to engineer the human mind. This is an example of how “education becomes a hotly contested terrain,” and how the young, creative minds are being endangered by those in power who lack the understanding of what education should mean.

When education is designed by those bent towards militarism, then we may evolve into a Sparta instead of an Athens, in the context of Ancient Greek history. Consider the training of a Spartan between 800 to 600 B.C:

Boys were taken from their mothers at the age of seven and put under
control of the state. They live in barracks, where they were subjected to
harsh disciplines to make them tough and given an education that stressed
military training and obedience to authority. At twenty, Spartan males were
enrolled in the army for regular military service (Spielvogel, 2005, p. 60)

Unlike the Athenians who cultivate the mind through the arts and critical inquiry, the Spartans had a different attitude towards intellectual development in that:

Spartan citizens were discouraged from pursuing philosophy, literature,
the arts, and or any other subjects that might foster novel thoughts
dangerous to the stability of the state. The art of war and ruling was the
Spartan ideal. All other arts were frowned on (Spielvogel, 2005, pg. 61)

I hope we are not evolving into a Spartan state, at the rate of how the government is planning to bring thousands of our youth to court for their conscientious objection to the national act of indoctrination ala the Spartan state.

Let us now analyse what the development of Malaysia as a “military-state” means so that we may find ways to de-evolve and to become more like Athenians.

The Malaysian National Service was conceived to make the youth of today more patriotic or nationalistic, particularly in the age of globalization wherein international cut-throat competition and outright violations of human rights is prevailing.

The youth of any nation will need to understand the meaning of the struggle for independence and in their generation, what independence and nationalism may mean. This is a daunting task; the youth of today resides in a world quite different from those who died in combat in the name of the fatherland/motherland.

The youth of today battles with video characters in virtual environments such as Halo-2, Final Fantasy X, and Grand Theft Auto; in short, they are not yet independent. The world of illusion designed by the cultural-industrial complexes from afar are what they dwell in. They live in a matrix of ideological installations, be they designed by those who author the place of dwelling, or the “houses we inhabit.”

But how do we achieve the objective of making them love the nation when we are actually now making them hate the nation, by threatening to throw them in jail?
How many thousands of our youth will be thrown in jail by the time the National Service program ends?

Will we need to build bigger juvenile detention centers to house them and will we then, as a nation, evolve from a Third World dependent corporatist state to a “prison-industrial complex” if more and more youth of today refused to be indoctrinated?

We must make our youth nationalistic, but must we make them hate the nation, through the fear tactics we are using?

We step back and reflect upon this issue of national importance; or else we will lose the young, curious, intelligent minds of tomorrow.

The meaning of education

Education, and perhaps education alone, must be the vehicle to meeting the objectives of liberating them. As I write this phrase I think of the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s writing on the naturalistic approach to education in his work, Emile, or on Education.

Indoctrination is an enemy of education. Indoctrination paves the way for authoritarianism and the funneling of “official knowledge” into the minds of the young as if they are empty vessels.

Indoctrination creates individuals and citizens who will either become cogs in the wheels of the postmodern-capitalist State, workers in the international system of production, or at best, intelligentsia in the nationalist State defined by the “best and the brightest few.”

Indoctrination creates docile youth who will be apathetic towards idealism and disinterested in exploring newer frontiers of social justice.

Indoctrination, in some warring countries, creates under-aged suicide bombers.

The British writer, essayist, and humanist, George Orwell writes on the dangers of living in a world of double-speak in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four in that double-speak characterizes the nature of the indoctrinated mind. One parrots the slogans the government creates in one’s public speeches.

Education, comes from the Latin word, educare meaning ‘to draw out’ (the potentials) from within the individuals we consciously plan to educate.

Malaysia is at a critical juncture in which the youth has been shaped by the forces of ideological and material production and their identities formed through a complex process of socialization and the ongoing globalization that had come forth since the beginning of human movements.

Those who own the means of controlling the minds and consciousness of the youth, controls the process of indoctrinating the youth and making them docile and domesticated, in the name of nationalism.

Educators, I now speak to you -- understand the complexities of how thoughts are formed and the mind is expanded, before designing a program as grand as the Malaysian National service.

For whom does the National Service serve?

If it is to serve the intellectual development of our youth, we must de-militarize our agenda and next, understand our youth of today. We must understand the culture of our youth.

In many a graduate school of education in the United States, ‘Youth Cultures’ is currently offered as a course to help understand the phenomena of identity formation of the youth and how best to design the most effective instructional methodologies to affect changes.

Again, this is not an easy task. It is a historical issue; that the idea of “the Malaysian youth” need to be understood in all its complexities; its anthropological, psychological, and cultural origins.

Professors in Army Uniform

The Malaysian National Service is an attempt to redesign/reengineer the human self. It is a cybernetic attempt to reconfigure the neurons in order to affect ideological changes.

The National Service was probably planned by university lecturers in military uniforms who works in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense to create patriots. The university professors were probably, in their early years deeply involved in an extra-curricular activity such as “PALAPES” and decided that they like it and thought that it would be a good idea to transform this after-school interest into something of a grand scale of nationalistic significance that will propel them to fame.

Hence, you may find for example, some Vice Chancellors doubling up as Colonel or Brigadeer General, running the university like Third World generals such as Soeharto or Sani Abacha. It is therefore easier for people in governments to buy the idea of nationalism sold by professors-in-uniform than that articulated by deans of faculties of education who actually know a lot more about human cognition than mental colonialism.

The irony of this genealogical aspect is this: The National Service is actually borne out of the life long interest of lecturers who simply love the uniformed bodies. It is akin to a politician’s visit to a “Smart School” in California or Vancouver and decided that by the year 2010, all 10,000 Malaysian schools should be smart, without analyzing the long-term implications for digital divide, let alone the issue of technological dependency.

What would it be like if the National Service is run by those who love the Arts and Humanities and Philosophy? Would we create Athenians more than Spartans? Would our youth be trained by thinkers and artists and humanists than drill sergeants?

Military-styled education instills discipline but does that through fear and force. Even if it is designed to be gentle, it remains an education program installed to have the youth follow rules and regimentation so that it will be easier to make them good workers and followers of regimes.

Education for the development of the human mind, and to recognize and to further develop the genius that is in each and every child, is a gentle act of showing the way towards human liberation.

The ultimate aim of education is, I believe, not to control the minds of human beings but to liberate them from the shackles of ideological, supernaturalistic, parochial, or regressive religious belief systems, but rather to move beyond the sociology and politics of knowledge.

In short, education is meant to make our youth think and create new artifacts and newer and better designs of living built on humanistic and ethical foundations close to our hearts. Freedom, of course, must come with responsibility.

What then must we do?

The answer lies in the role of the Malaysian public universities. Let the faculties of education take over the business of expanding the human minds. They ought to be the rightful champions of the meaning of education. These individuals ought to be the Athenians; those who know better than the Spartans.

But professors of education, you must speak up for the youngster from Perlis!

For, he is the first victim and a silent reproduction of the emerging militaristic state.


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