Wed, Dec 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Teens anxious about national service program

MALAYSIAN MUSTER The government hotline and Web site were jammed as all those born in 1986 tried to find out if they had been selected for the new scheme


Tens of thousands of teenagers jammed a government hotline yesterday to learn if they were the first recruits to Malaysia's new compulsory national-service program.

One of those selected was Loh Chiew Yee, 17, who said she was now feeling nervous.

"I'll be homesick and sad," she said. "I was supposed to start a part-time job at a pharmacy, but I have to cancel my plans. I just hope the training will help me become more independent and brave."

About 85,000 youths born in 1986 are expected to get the call up for three months of physical training that includes military-style exercises, as well as community service and classes on patriotism. The first batch starts in February.

Officials hope the plan will help bolster racial integration, curtail religious extremism and instill a sense of civic responsibility.

More than 480,000 boys and girls who are eligible have been told they could dial a hotline, visit a Web site or send a mobile phone text message yesterday to check if they've been selected at random by computer.

But by late afternoon, some were still on tenterhooks because the phone number was continually busy, the Web site was often inaccessible and they received no quick replies to their text messages.

A spokeswoman for the program said at least six operators were on duty at the hotline, but there were "non-stop calls."

Critics of the national service plan, which is expected to cost 500 million ringgit (US$132 million) annually, fear it will be used to indoctrinate participants with pro-government rhetoric.

Most of the eligible participants have just graduated from high school and would have several months free before furthering their studies. Some complain that the plan would prevent them from starting jobs, traveling on vacations and obtaining driving licenses.

"I nearly cried because I was sure I would be chosen," said Goh Sue Anne. "When I found out I wasn't, I was so happy, I was jumping around the house."

Even those who believed the idea had its merits said the program should be voluntary.

"The concept is not bad, but the implementation isn't good," said Joelle Renita. "People who don't want to go will get irritated. You can't force us into feeling patriotic."

The teens will be taught unarmed combat, emergency first aid,Malaysian history and civic pride.

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