THE Selangor government’s November 2009 announcement banning state employees from attending Biro Tatanegara (BTN) courses due to racist elements triggered a flurry of public testimonies. Many former BTN participants shared their own encounters with racism during the course, including on The Nut Graph.
The government was quick to defend the BTN programme while agreeing that there should be a review. But despite the shocking stories that BTN participants have made public, the government has remained silent about what exactly it plans to do about the programme.
Thus far, what has the government actually said about the programme that is run by the Prime Minister’s Department?
“It should be revamped,” said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz on 30 Nov 2009. No, not revamped, “upgraded”, clarified Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Ahmad Maslan a day later. But wait, it will be revamped, said Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin a few days after that.
The apparent confusion aside, when The Nut Graph attempted to follow up on how the government was going to rectify the BTN programme, the response we got from the BTN director-general was: “Why the sudden re-interest in BTN?”
Others like National Unity and Integration Department director-general Datuk Azman Amin Hassan admit that there are problems with the programme. But he is quick to add that there have also been positive responses from BTN participants.
“The government is concerned and we would like to review the course in terms of curriculum and personnel,” says Azman in a telephone interview. “There may have been facilitators that went overboard when conducting the course. Sometimes BTN has to depend on other officers to assist in the programme,” he adds.
Azman however qualifies that he is not directly involved in the BTN review and referred The Nut Graph to the BTN director-general, Datuk Shagul Hamid Abdullah.
Shagul, however, tells The Nut Graph that he cannot speak to the media about BTN and that we should refer to the deputy minister in charge, Ahmad Maslan.
“Fine-tuning sudah siap,” is all Ahmad Maslan says during a phone call. Further calls, e-mails and text messages over the next two weeks to find out what this “fine-tuning” involved go unanswered. A check on Ahmad Maslan‘s blog did not reveal any clues save for a statement that the government might build more BTN camps so more participants can be involved.
But if there are racist elements in a government-run programme, why is the state building more camps for the course without first addressing the issues that have been raised?
E-mails and multiple phone calls to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon’s office also did not elicit any response. Koh heads the National Unity and Integration Department, tasked with promoting greater integration amongst the different communities.
The government, it seems, does not want to answer the question of how a course that purportedly promotes “patriotism” became a state-sponsored breeding ground for racism. Neither is it demonstrating that it is holding accountable those responsible for the BTN programme.
But while the government seems to want Malaysians to forget there is even an issue, others have stepped up to the plate.
In contrast with the government’s silence on BTN, Barisan Nasional component party Gerakan released a 6 Feb 2010 statement with five proposals to improve the course.
Gerakan Youth secretary-general Dr Dominic Lau said a representative special working committee headed by the chief secretary to the government was needed to review the programme. Academicians and high-ranking government officials from different races and backgrounds should also be included. Lau also suggested that more non-Malay Malaysian facilitators be hired and that the name Biro Tatanegara be changed to Biro 1Malaysia.
“To us, our stand is clear,” says Lau in a phone interview. “If you want to come up with a patriotism or nationalism programme, the task force needs to come from all layers of the rakyat. Government servants must be represented, universities, as well as non-governmental organisations and non-profit organisations…As long as only certain groups of people are involved, there is a possibility of bias and problems. There has been no previous check and balance before this.”
Lau says the course cannot be designed purely from the government’s perspective and that other views were needed in formulating the course content. “Government servants may not be as aware about what is happening outside [the] government,” he says.
However, it appears Gerakan also faces challenges getting an official response from their own government about BTN. “We have not received any feedback [from the government] so far on Gerakan’s proposals. We are trying to submit our memorandum officially to the prime minister and we are waiting for the date [to be fixed],” says Lau.
But even if Gerakan’s proposals were adopted wholesale along with other helpful suggestions, can patriotism and nationalism be instilled in a three day or one week course?
Monash University’s senior lecturer in media and cultural studies Dr Yeoh Seng Guan questions the BTN courses’ efficacy. “It doesn’t seem very plausible to me that such a powerful and sublime emotion like patriotism can be drummed into young people in such a short period of time,” he says in an e-mail interview.
“Reading the testimonies on The Nut Graph thus far, it seems more like a flawed militaristic attempt at instilling love for country and fellow [citizens].”
Yeoh says it is easier for negative feelings such as fear, distrust and suspicion to be conveyed in such camps rather than those of love, acceptance, trust and patriotism. He says these positive feelings are generated more through daily interaction when people practise and experience such values.
Assuming there is no political will to do away with BTN for now, Yeoh says the following must be present to curb racist elements from creeping into BTN programmes:
Allow the respected scholars and trainers from civil society groups to scrutinise the BTN syllabus
Put in place a mechanism for participants to report racist trainers
Carry out “training of trainers” programmes to weed out the [unsuitable] ones
Cease using former soldiers and police officers as trainers
But with the government’s reticence to even discuss the BTN issue, can we expect any review to be more than piecemeal? And whether it’s an “upgrade” or “revamp”, what exactly is the government doing about a programme gone wrong?