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National Unity Crash Course

  • June 25, 2004

By Zedeck Siew

My time at National Service began on 24th March and ended 4th of June. I was part of Series 2. I spent the first month at a camp in Kuala Kubu Bahru and the rest at Kolej 14, UPM. We were occasionally forced to watch movies, to keep us out of our rooms and out of trouble during the evening hours. The movies we were made to watch throughout, in chronological order:

  1. Leftenan Adnan
  2. MX3
  3. Keluarga 69
  4. Leftenan Adnan
  5. MX3
  6. The Last Samurai
  7. Buli
  8. The Italian Job (the F. Gary Gray remake)

Also four episodes of TV1 serial Insurgensi, a half-fictionalised dramatisation of Parti Komunis Malaysia’s uprising during the 70s. The production house logo facsimiles Lucas film’s exactly (animation, lens-flare, and all). A Leftenan Kolonel wrote the script. The actors, of course, were not playing humans.

They showed us Leftenan Adnan for obvious reasons; MX3 and Buli are Paragons of Malay-language Komedi, Keluarga 69 was made by a National Treasure, The Last Samurai illustrates our Pandang ke Timur policy, and The Italian Job is, well – it has to be taken in context.

It was screened to us in a darkened hall, with an LCD projector and a laptop. It had a ticker running: “For Promotional Purposes Only”, at the bottom. Not all of us were there. Some were up in their rooms, smoking and feigning illness. About forty were at various volleyball courts, practicing for Malam Kebudayaan.

The Malam Kebudayaan was to be our crowning graduation of the Cultural Module, among the four we were supposed to complete, apart from Nationalism (‘Hamba menjunjung duli; Raja adil raja disembah’), Character Building (how to petition parents for money to buy guitar strings) and Community Service (field trips to Sony Bangi and KLIA). These were to help us develop a sense of patriotism as well as unity among the races. As time went by, however, word of the Cultural Module diminished and anticipation of our Malam Kebudayaan increased. The components of Culture they mentioned:

  1. dikir barat (Malay)
  2. kompang (Malay)
  3. tarian India klasik (Indian)
  4. tarian Cina klasik (Chinese)

We did the first two. The first night they squatted three hundred of us in a car-park. The facilitators held up the four instruments and shouted their names at us with a loudhailer. The instruments were too soft to hear from where I sat, close to the front. We never got to touch them.

The two dances were shelved due to time / resource constraints, and replaced with a katana-wielding Tom Cruise.

This lack of education did not impair us, culturally. We were not ignorant or apathetic. A tall Sikh fellow told me this socio-politically-conscious joke:

Three young men (Malay / Chinese / Indian) died in a road accident. The Chinese man woke up on the post­ mortem table. ‘God told us,’ he said to the surprised doctor, ‘you are too young to die. Pay me RM500 each and I will return you your lives.’

‘What about the other two?’ the doctor asked.

‘The Indian is still bargaining and the Malay is waiting for the government to pay.’

I was thirteen when I first heard the joke. I had agreed with the sentiment then. Now, I told my Sikh friend to shut up.

We were at Pusat Latihan Perindustrian & Pemulihan Bangi (known previously as Pusat Orang Kurang Upaya Bangi), in a conference room. We were waiting for the Muslim boys to finish the afternoon prayers; I opened my notebook. To pass the time I decided to catalogue the Mat Rempit, one of the wondrous and multifarious aspects of Malaysia I had encountered. Call him Awe:

Awe (pronounced a-weh) is a Malay youth, of working class origin (‘Lowest of the Low Class Malay,’ as a middle-class Malay friend of mine put it). He dresses in t-shirt, riding vest, and a pair of jeans worn as high up the waist as possible. He wears a baseball cap with the visor turned up at 45 degrees. Because of his jeans and extended time riding a bike, he has a bow-legged, shuffling gait.

His pride and joy is a motorcycle of reasonable purchase price, but heavily modified, as exemplified by these triumphant lyrics, in which Awe leads us:

Beribu habis duitku
Membuat motorku laju
Malam minggu, ku tertunggu-tunggu
Siapa nak challen aku!

When he first warbled onstage, one night, sounding quite horrific, I was endeared, even more so when the hall sang along. Here was a cute little ditty that, although against Policy (Rempits eventually make your speeding death statistics), authority let be.

Awe is loud, rude, and does not respect personal property. But Rempits in general are considered fashionable enough to garner adequate female attention; this, coupled with the fact they represent a majority at camp, earns contempt of other sects: the Middle Class, the Ah-Bengs, the Tamil Boys, the Sabahs, the Sarawaks, the Anok-­anok Kelate and Ganus. (Unfortunately, my experience of NS is male, due to official segregation and an unofficial, zeitgeist-induced discouragement of inter-gender interaction beyond courting.)

You could point out and mark these groups, sitting or standing in clusters during the Malam Kebudayaan. It was held at the Astaka Seni, a building that also houses the local Rakan Muda office. We sat strewn across one of UPM’s thoroughfares. Barricades kept us in. They had to produce a multiracial itinerary, so the show included:

  1. tarian Sumazau
  2. tarian ala Bollywood
  3. tarian kipas Cina
  4. dikir barat
  5. tarian-tarian Melayu tradisional (Boria, etc.)
  6. a band playing ‘Anak Malaysia’
  7. joget 70an
  8. the Mat Rempit song

To which Awe’s friends got up and jigged. People seated in my immediate vicinity slapped their heads and angry facilitators advanced with loudhailers.

And then a sketch. Brief synopsis:

Warung Pak Mat, Gerai Muthu, and Gerai Ah Chong are food vendors in close proximity. Due to a minor misunderstanding, Pak Mat and Muthu’s youthful patrons ally against Ah Chang’s Chinese thugs. The crisis escalates, tables are folded, fists are traded – when, all of a sudden, a platoon of National Service trainees, in boots and bright blue fatigues, march in stage right and reconcile the fighters, to the programme’s theme song, an upbeat, catchy:

Kami anak-anak Malaysia
Berbagai bangsa, berbagai budaya
Kami sehati sejiwa
Berganding tangan demi Negara

Followed by a deklamasi sajak: ‘Wahai Anakku / Ingatlah Peristiwa Hitam 1969!’

I watched Indian boys group at the curb, animated in conversation and ignoring the stage. Chinese faces occupied the periphery, close to the barricades, waiting to be sent back to our blocks.

I remain unsure of what is Budaya Malaysia according to NS, a programme designed to shape Malaysian youth. This is my guess: Budaya Malaysia consists of Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage-sanctioned items – dikir barat, kompang, tarian India klasik, etc.

Of course, recognising Culture wasn’t the priority. The priority was Nationalism, or rather, Defence of the Nation, the purity of its values and traditions, against the (Western) Foreigner. Specifically, according to my Nationalism tutorials, we have to defend ourselves against the United States and Zionists, and by extension, equal rights, freedom of expression, earrings on boys, and other Alien Bogeys.

To facilitate this, the state requires four categories: Malay / Chinese / Indian / Lain-lain. That is also Budaya Malaysia.

The unofficial Malaysia has more extensive ‘cultural’ sub-division: Rempit, Skema, Ah-beng, Ganu. The sentiments mimic those that have been born out of National Policy: these groups have congealed and walled themselves against each other, like racial identities. One girl told me, after I asked whether she could speak Tamil: ‘Can speak, but write I’m not good.’ She then lowered her head conspiratorially. ‘But that Kala – she is like not really Indian. Always speaking Malay, most of her friends are Malay – she speaks Tamil only a little.’

Going through my notebook on the last night of NS, I realised I myself had set Awe in stone; I had drawn up a set of rules and moulded Malay boys in his likeness, even if they did not really wear their jeans above the navel. I was making Identities. Among six hundred youths at the camp who were taught to think the same, I conveniently collapsed them all into a thirteen-year-old. I still agreed, more or less, with my Sikh friend.

This horrified me.

And the ‘country’s future leaders’ still have these attitudes, even after Malam Kebudayaan. National Service desires national unity: it envisions Utopia with racially-specific quarters. It is a miracle cure that cannot work. It is not unlike a religious retreat: at the end everyone is pious, pledging themselves to a renewed devotion to their Deity. It is two weeks before they begin masturbating again.

At Kuala Kubu Bahru, I had the opportunity to speak to my camp director, an amicable Chinese man with a moustache. I asked him whether he thought NS would achieve what it was meant to do.

‘Well, I think it benefits a lot of people,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to look at the big picture. This does not concern you. Just look at yourself, and what you can do in this. I had to pay for Outbound School in my time.’ He explained that he works in finance. Being a volunteer here, he was missing out on the action, as the market was presently going up. ‘So I’m losing a lot of money,’ he added, and began to laugh.

On one of the last nights, I sat with a boy from PJ and a boy from Ranau, on the road below our kolej block, staring at full moon and smoking cigarettes (illegal at camp, 18-above notwithstanding). I was melancholy because three months had made me despair of my country. A group of Rempits were coming up the incline, sweaty from a midnight session of sepak takraw. One, I saw, was wearing Bob Marley wreathed in marijuana.

The Rempits commandeer my friends’ cigarettes, and it is time to leave. My PJ friend says: ‘Beautiful night, but ruined by Rempits.’

First Published: 25.06.2004 on Kakiseni