LOH Jia Liang, 23, attended his Biro Tata Negara (BTN) course in April 2008. It was during the end of his second year at a Malaysian public university and after the historic March 2008 general election which reduced the Barisan Nasional’s power.
Now in his fourth year, Loh is an avid graphic novel fan. After reading Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical series on growing up during the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Loh says he thought, “This feels like Malaysia!”
The Nut Graph sat down with Loh in Kuala Lumpur on 15 Dec 2009 to ask him what his BTN experience was like. Here is Part Two of our series on the BTN blues.
TNG: Where did you attend your BTN programme?
Loh Jia Liang: Pasir Mas, Kelantan. We were shuttled to the camp by our university’s bus.
How long did the programme last?
Four days and three nights.
How many participants were there, in your estimate?
I think there were more than 100 participants. It was a bit strange. Usually in my campus, the first years have to go. But during my batch, only the Malay [Malaysian] first years went. The non-Malay [Malaysians] who went were from second year.
And it’s also strange because with the Malay [Malaysians], there were both boys and girls in my programme. But there were only non-Malay [Malaysian] boys in my camp. The [non-Malay Malaysian] girls had to attend a separate camp, where there were also both male and female Malay [Malaysians].
That really is strange. What would you estimate the racial composition at your particular camp to be?
I suppose it was around 80% Malay [Malaysian] and 20% non-Malay [Malaysian], which was mostly Chinese. We all believed we had to go otherwise we wouldn’t be able to graduate.
Was this an official directive from your university authorities or from BTN?
No, it was just word of mouth, but word of mouth can be very powerful.
What about the BTN trainers, what was their racial composition?
There were 10 of them, and they were all Malay [Malaysian] men.
Did you know their background or qualifications?
Two of them were 30-something, and I think one of the two was a BTN staff. The rest were retired army personnel, I think.
What was a typical day like during the camp?
The non-Muslims would wake up at around 6.30am. The Muslims had to wake up earlier to go and pray. But we all assembled by 7am, like in a school assembly, to kawat kaki and sing the national anthem. After that, we all went for breakfast, and then we had to go for lectures and activities. The activities were mentally challenging, cooperative games.
Most of us were there against our will, so we decided to make the best of it. On the last day, we went trekking, and we went through a rubber estate and swamps. It was quite fun.
Did the lectures have any racist content?
During one of the night lectures, a lecturer showed a video which he said was floating on the internet. It showed a Muslim girl in a tudung hugging a dog. Of course, the Malay [Malaysian] girls among us gasped.
The video also went on about how (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim was an agent of the Jews. The lecturer said the purpose of the video was to show how Islam was being eroded.
How did you feel watching this video?
I was like, “Okay.” But then it went on and I was just watching in disbelief. (Laughs.) The Chinese [Malaysians] just kept quiet but after the video was over we huddled and said, “What is all this!” (Laughs.)
What about the Malay Malaysian students?
They were all just watching. The atmosphere was such that it was difficult for them to show if they were disgusted anyway.
But there was nothing overtly racist against non-Malay Malaysians?
There was nothing that really criticised non-Malay Malaysians. The trainers did say that Chinese and Indian Malaysians should be grateful for sharing this land. They said we had to be thankful to the Barisan Nasional. I suppose they couldn’t go overboard because there were a few non-Malay [Malaysians] there.
Did the programme change you? How do you feel now?
I was indifferent after the camp. It felt like a waste of time. They should have done something inclusive, like trying to get first and second years to mix better. Our gap was not just racial — there was a gap between first years and second years, too. Almost all my friends felt the same way.
Was there inter-year or inter-racial mixing at all during the programme?
During meal times, we did talk, but only within our own groups. Not many people mixed outside their own groups. After all, there were already 10 people per group. But then after every azan, the Malay [Malaysians] would go and pray, and the non-Malay [Malaysians] were just left to do whatever [we wanted].
After this camp, at least now I smile at my juniors on campus. But beyond that, we don’t talk much, because we are in different years, doing different courses.
Was there anything good about it?
I thought the activities were interesting and engaging. They weren’t racist. The lectures were boring — I doodled and drew most of the time. I mean, if I listened then I would only be bored and irritated so it was better to just let my mind wander.
Did you need to do anything by the end of the programme, such as a test or a pledge?
No, but we were given a certificate at the end of the camp. This certificate was very important, because if we didn’t get it or lost it then we might have to attend the programme again. Then how?
If you have a personal BTN experience you would like to share, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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