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BTN’s flaws beyond racism

THE Biro Tata Negara (BTN) saga has taken yet another twist. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has called former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad “bloody racist” for defending the BTN training modules.

Most right-thinking members of the public would agree with Nazri that the BTN is ethnic-centric. However, would it be fine if the curriculum is turned into something more inclusive such as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia campaign?

The debate on the BTN programme has so far been centred on its racism and exclusiveness. But BTN is first and foremost about indoctrination, or brain-washing if you like.

While the current BTN programmes are simply indoctrination of some bad ideas, would it be fine if they became indoctrination of some good ideas?

To appreciate this concern, we must ask: Why do we need courses like the BTN’s in the first place? The answer may need to be broken down to two parts, based on the BTN’s target recipients — civil servants, and selected citizens such as university students.

Let’s begin with citizens. Why do citizens need indoctrination of good values about nationhood and citizenship? After all, isn’t national service arguably also a tool for such indoctrination?

But is such indoctrination necessary so that these target groups understand rightly what this country is about? What is this country about anyway? Does every Malaysian hold on to the same views? If not, why should some views be privileged over others?

Take this example: I believe in Malaysia being a liberal and multi-faith democracy, and my friend believes in a morally conservative Islamic state. While I may claim that my view is more inclusive, do I have the right to impose my view on other Malaysians while my friend’s view is silenced? Does my inclusiveness warrant me the right to authoritarianism?

Why is indoctrination wrong?

Shouldn’t debates on such issues on the very nature of our nationhood and citizenship be part of our democratic life? If our democracy can only decide on lesser issues but not the fundamental ones, what’s the meaning of democracy?

Two objections may arise here. First, shouldn’t the political majority, which elects the government, have the right to promote the basic political consensus that most citizens have signed up to? If not, should “nationhood” (kenegaraan) then be removed completely from all school syllabuses? Second, if we allow a free-for-all debate, would this country descend into chaos?

The first objection points to one important question in democratic life: To what extent should a country’s political majority be allowed to perpetuate and expand itself vis-à-vis the political minority?

Minorities views should not be silenced

The answer, I believe, is to the extent that the minority’s views are not being silenced to pose meaningful intellectual and discursive challenges.

A country may privilege some important ideological positions that require a supermajority to overturn, commonly via hard constitutionalism. But at no time should such positions be protected from being questioned or challenged.

In this sense, knowledge on the constitution, nationhood and state policies can be taught to students, but there must be room for dissent. And such room should naturally grow with the age and maturity of students — they should ultimately be free to choose any position upon attaining voting age.

Courses like the BTN’s are therefore wrong because only one single view is imposed on citizens of voting age. Even if the singular view is inclusive or progressive, this is but the ideological manufacturing of a benign electoral one-party state. And of course, if the content is racist or fascist, you get a racist or fascist one-party state legitimised by the ritual of elections.

But here comes the second objection: Wouldn’t a free-for-all debate cause the country to descend into chaos?

If the chaos does not involve violence, then we merely need to be smarter to sort out our collective preferences. After all, is ignorance or stupidity a better option for us? On the other hand, if the chaos is brought by violence, then it is violence — and not freedom of thought — that we should stop. Refusal to delegitimise violence would be but a testimony of our savageness.

Administrative neutrality

BTN courses are designed for both citizens and civil servants. If citizens in a democracy should not be indoctrinated, should civil servants be indoctrinated?

Melayu Mudah Lupa

Poster of Mahathir’s Melayu Mudah Lupa on BTN’s website (source: btn.gov.my)

The answer is clearly no. Civil servants in a democracy are not “kakitangan kerajaan”, or government employees. They are state employees whose ultimate bosses are the entire citizenry including government supporters, opposition supporters and civil servants themselves. Likewise, the government is also an employee of the citizenry. Hence, administratively, the government is merely the civil service’s superior.

Civil servants therefore have dual roles. They are subordinates of the government as state employees, but they are also bosses of the government as citizens and voters.

They therefore need to know and separate the interests and preferences of three parties: The state (the entire country and citizenry), the government (their superior at work), and themselves (as citizens and voters). They must not let their personal political preferences affect their performance at work. Neither should they serve the partisan interests of the government of the day beyond constitutional and democratic norms.

So, civil servants need to know government policy positions, but their knowledge must also extend beyond that. They need to understand positions of the political opposition and civil society, and most of all the principles and practices of administrative neutrality.

The current BTN course, on the contrary, seems to be based on a trinity of state, government and civil service. The government is the country, and civil servants must serve the government.

Biro Tata Demokrasi

BTN exposes racism in BN’s authoritarianism

The BTN saga exposes the two attributes of the Barisan Nasional’s authoritarianism — racism and the one-party state. Most Malaysians have focused only on racism and ignored the peril of the one-party state indoctrination, as if indoctrination becomes acceptable if what is indoctrinated is good.

Selangor has done the country a great favour by challenging the BTN’s indoctrination regime. And it looks like Penang now wants to follow Selangor’s suit. These two states should go ahead with their own alternative programmes and not be persuaded by the proposed revamp of the BTN modules.

Their alternative programmes should have three features. Firstly, the participation should be made voluntary, except for civil servants and bonded scholarship holders. Secondly, the programmes must be framed in a democratic framework to introduce not only Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s position, but also the BN’s position and the positions of various civil society groups. Administrative neutrality should be the guiding principle in the training for bureaucrats. Thirdly, in line with the plural content, lecturers, panellists and trainers should come from all political persuasions.

In short, the PR nationhood training bureau should indeed be Biro Tata Demokrasi, not Biro Tata Negara-Satu-Parti. favicon


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes Umno’s concession on BTN suggests its potential willingness to dismantle the electoral one-party state if there is enough public pressure.

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12 Responses to “BTN’s flaws beyond racism”

  1. chinhuatw says:

    P/S: The Bar Council’s MyConstitution campaign can be made a core part of the Biro Tata Demokrasi course. Pakatan Rakyat governments should just sponsor their participants to activities organized under the campaign.

  2. Kamal says:

    “Their alternative programmes should have three features. Firstly, the participation should be made voluntary, except for civil servants and bonded scholarship holders.”

    I attended a BTN programme some years back. The whole set-up is misguided and divisive. If we want to know more about the national histories and society, go join a library – many books on Malaysian history and sociology/anthropology. Or better still, get involved with society.

    If both PR and the BN government feel there is a need to instill government-centric patriotism in their civil servants, why would you want to do that? Isn’t the act of volunteering to join the government service already patriotic? If you want good governance, send them for professional and managerial programs.

    Haven’t we learned anything from nationalism projects in other countries (reference: Serbia, Germany, Japan, etc.). Government actions in defining and taking ownership over Nationalism and Patriotism eventually leads us down some very slippery slopes. Today the idea of a state-sanctioned patriotism or nationalism doesn’t appear to be so well received in Western Europe and for good reasons!

    In the end, the BTN is an outdated instrument that serves no good purpose. I personally don’t think PR should even think of an alternative.

  3. Azizi Khan says:

    A very good observation about indoctrination. BTN and indoctrination exists:

    1. To ensure that Umno’s version of Islam is permeated throughout the nation. Think about it. Every single religious official is hand picked and fed Umno’s version of Islam. That it is OK to tread on non-Muslim rights, it’s OK to be racists, corruption is OK and that Malay Malaysians are better than anyone else.

    2. To ensure that citizens, especially those in government have the servitude mentality especially to the powers that be. To unconditionally serve Umno’s purposes. Anything less than that – you are made to believe that you are the enemy of the state.

    3. To ensure that every citizen, especially Malay Malaysians, are suspicious of other citizens. Only Umno can be trusted. This *trust* cannot be extended to any other BN component parties and other races. Ever wonder why all top government posts are now filled with Malay Malaysians? Specifically the Armed Forces, Police, including Special Branch, Rela etc. Who will these security forces serve should the opposition ever win the elections? Worse still, will they serve Umno and destabilize the country? As it is no secret that the Royal Malaysian Police along with its Special Branch exclusively work in unison with Umno.

    4. The education system is politically motivated to ensure maximum indoctrination about the Malay race. Historical facts about Parameswara, Munshi Abdullah, Hang Li Po have been systematically eradicated from the syllabus or reduced to mere lines. Why? It doesn’t fit into the Malay supremacy ideology. Neither does archaeological studies on candi in Bruas, Kedah. Terms like Merong Mahawangsa, Chola Empire, GanggaNagara etc. are all a distant memory. Ask any schoolgoing kids these days – they never heard of it! But, instead students are made to learn about Arab culture which has no bearing on Malaysia or Malay Malaysians. Sure, Islam is the “official” religion, but since when did Malay Muslims become Arabs? The identity of Malay Malaysians has slowly been turned into Arab culture over the decades to fit into Umno’s Islamisation policies.

    Has anyone stopped to ask why indoctrination and BTN is so important so much so that BTN reports to the Prime Minister’s Department? The answer is: Dr Mahathir. If you have all your citizens under your thumb you can do whatever you want. Every single government department under Mahathir’s rule was filled with Umno loyalists who exist till today. And Mahathir got away with it for a long long time. He had the citizens and even the royals under his thumb. His fatal flaw was he didn’t realise how popular DSAI is.

    Still BTN continues the damage control on Mahathir’s behalf – painting DSAI as a traitor to the Malay race. BTN is the remnant of the Mahathir legacy. His gift to the average Malaysian from all walks of life. BTN is the reason why government service desks are rude. BTN is the reason why corruption is rife in the police force. BTN is the reason why people like Kugan are treated like animals by the police. BTN produced generation of “Cow-Head Protestors”. BTN produced religious extremists who now are in high religious positions pumping out fatwas like printing press.

    [...] Every day we hear Utusan and other Malay propaganda machinery warn us, “Do not mess with Malay [Malaysians].” What is it that they know that they rest of us don’t? Is there a Plan B for Umno? Will there be a martial law exercised should the current government fall?

    In order for Umno to set up an indoctrination plan – it first must believe that there is a clear and present danger of dissent in Malaysian society. BTN is the first line of defence. If so, what is the last line ?

  4. Gustri says:

    While I agree that the current bigoted way of BTN or any form of indoctrination of the civil servants and civil society should be transformed into something that is more positive, I still think that such indoctrination camps should be abolished altogether.

    Reason? It is a sheer waste of money. Throughout my life, I have have been subjected to such indoctrination camps of various levels at least four to five times since I was in secondary school up until my adulthood. Apart from the fact that these indoctrination camps did not manage to penetrate through my conscience, it is a sheer waste of money. If you have been in the camps, you would know what I am talking about. Participants are fed six meals per day. And certain bumiputera or rather Umno-putera owned companies would be awarded to run these camps (including building them, security, food suppliers, cleaners etc). While one can argue that these camps provide job opportunities to the kampung folks living around where most of these camps are located, this is not how our tax money should be spent. And mind you, this is just the tip of the iceberg on how the money is spent on these camps.

    Good values, civic-mindedness, patriotism and loyalty to the country and the people (notice I did not mention the King) can be instilled in schools. What are the schools for? Not just for producing top students who manage to get 22A1s in SPM but do not understand the values of the humanities or do not understand the real concept of democracy. This is where our taxpayers’ money, my money, should go. Into revamping the education system. I rest my case.

  5. Nicholas Aw says:

    There are many unanswered questions pertaining to the BTN. Amongst them are: “Why does the BTN target one race group?” “Why does this group need to be indoctrinated?”

    As it is we have History, Religious Studies (for Muslims) and Moral Education (for non-Muslims) as core subjects in the school curriculum supported by the National Service. Aren’t these components enough to instil patriotism and love for the country?

    The former PM is right in saying that the BTN helps to strengthen these values. I too believe that the BTN modules have been designed to instil all the positive values. Perhaps it may need some fine-tuning but overall the BTN syllabus is good. What needs to be given much thought is the target group which many, including the Minister in the PM’s Department, feel should include all Malaysians to be in line with the PM’s objective of 1Malaysia. The other area which should be given much thought is the selection of instructors. Currently, some of the personnel involved are nothing more than sadistic brain-washers. These are the people that need to be removed as they are the ones who have brought disrepute to the BTN course.

    I am of the opinion that whatever courses that the government may come up with will not be effective except for wasting taxpayers’ money. The way to patriotism, love of country and race integration is the government’s willingness to be fair to all Malaysians by providing a level playing field. Also, statements made by some irresponsible people classifying non-Malay [Malaysians] as second class citizens does more harm than good. Policies that favour one race should be revamped. Only when all Malaysians especially the young ones feel that they have equal rights and opportunities in this country, will their mindset change. The government then will not have to worry about whether it will or will not be returned to power in the next general elections.

  6. Rocky's Bru says:

    Let’s say “tata!” to Biro Tata!

  7. sba says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with the BTN’s programme content because it has been officially laid down in the national curriculum for schools as follows:

    Huraian Sukatan Pelajaran Sejarah
    Sekolah Menengah Rendah yang dikeluarkan oleh Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia ada beberapa objektif yang perlu di sasarkan dalam pendidikan sejarah di sekolah:

    Pendidikan Sejarah bertujuan untuk memupuk dan memperkukuh semangat setia negara dan jati diri sebagai warganegara Malaysia dan warga dunia. Melalui
    pengetahuan dan penghayatan sejarah tanahair dan sejarah negara luar yang berkaitan, para murid dapat memahami keadaan masyarakat dan negara serta
    hubungannya dengan sejarah dunia. Usaha ini bertujuan mewujudkan semangat perpaduan dan kekitaan bangsa dan negara Malaysia. Pendidikan Sejarah juga dapat
    mewujudkan ingatan bersama terhadap Sejarah sebagai rangka rujukan kesedaran kebangsaan.

    OBJEKTIF

    Unsur Patriotisme
    Fokus utama kurikulum Sejarah bertujuan menanam semangat patriotik yang memupuk nilai-nilai murni di kalangan murid bagi melahirkan warganegara yang:
    i Berbangga Sebagai Rakyat Malaysia 
    menghormati raja dan pemimpin negara
    menghargai jasa dan perjuangan tokoh-tokoh negara
    menghormati lambang-lambang negara (seperti bendera, lagu kebangsaan, jata negara)
    menjaga dan mempertahankan maruah bangsa dan negara
    menghargai dan mengamalkan tradisi dan budaya bangsa
    berbangga dengan sejarah negara

    ii Bersemangat Setia Negara
    cinta akan bangsa dan negara
    taat dan setia kepada raja dan pemimpin negara
    sedia berkorban untuk bangsa dan negara
    bertanggungjawab kepada bangsa dan negara
    berani dan sanggup mempertahankan kedaulatan
    bangsa dan negara
    peka kepada masalah dan isu tentang bangsa dan negara
    bersyukur sebagai warganegara Malaysia

    Bersemangat Kekitaan
    bersatupadu dan berharmoni
    bertolak ansur dan bertoleransi
    bekerjasama dan tolong menolong
    hormat menghormati
    bersefahaman dan bermuafakat
    muhibbah atau semangat bermasyarakat

    Please don’t subscribe to communists ideals.

  8. global says:

    Don’t see any point in bringing up this stupid BTN issue. What a total waste of time to even talk about this… we should be more concerned if we, Malaysians, are going to excel in this globalised world…

  9. Merah Silu says:

    I never got a chance to attend a BTN course. But I met a few of its instructors in other courses. BTN is just a normal course to increase participants’ awareness of the country’s situation and to be more patriotic. To the Malay [Malaysian], the course will improve their responsibility as the native people/bumiputra in this country, and they have to be able to compete with the more competitive and kiasu descendant of the economic-seeking immigrants. Nothing wrong with the course. In fact, it propagates positive values for the bumiputra. They have to work harder now as they have been far behind in the economic sectors, and beginning to show weaknesses on the political front.

    [...]

  10. rowena says:

    I am a civil servant, a non-Malay and not a Muslim. I too had to endure BTN. Apparently, because of my pendatang heritage, I am supposed to be GRATEFUL to my forefathers (Tun Tan Cheng Lock) for fighting for my right to be a citizen of this country, and as such, I am not allowed to question ANYTHING. I should just be thankful I have an IC.

    THAT is what BTN taught me. Now, tell me, isn’t that unfair? As far as I know, I was born in Melaka, and so were my parents, and my grandparents!! Don’t I deserve to be treated like a Malaysian? I am not a PENDATANG!

    Is this the aim of BTN?! How am I then supposed to be loyal to this country?

  11. Kamal says:

    Nicholas Aw: If you think that BTN was set up to instill good values, you really need to attend their program. The fault does not lie with over-enthusiastic trainers. As some people have mentioned elsewhere the “pakcik” commandos are the best part of the program and I agree with them.

    If BTN was well intended than perhaps the whole point of having the program at best is a misguided reading of the problems we face as a nation (ie lack of unity, nationalism and patriotism). Personally, I feel that nationalism and patriotism cannot and should not be defined by the government.

    The idea of patriotism being defined by the state is reminiscent of the logic of the nation-state popular during colonial times: One Nation, One Race and One Religion (or at least this is how I understood it). Today, the idea and ideals of loyalty and love for the country is much more complex. We recognise plurality in peoples, ethnicities (a more fluid and cultural representation of groups rather than the biological deterministic notion of race) and spiritual loyalties (not necessarily only of organised religions).

    In short, we love and experience our country and history in more ways than one. And in this plurality, no single group including the government can claim authority over the representation of what is and what is not patriotism and nationalism.

    Plus no one should prioritise political history and economic history over the many overlapping realities that make the historical and contemporary experiences of Malaysians; let alone to sanction one version as the official version. Since we cannot grasp the diversity in a single curriculum (it would be tedious to say the least), hence any project at instilling nationalism by the state is going to misrepresent, whether it is by a BN or PR-led government. If anything, the state can perhaps simply provide the space for people to share in the multitude of experiences of our multicultural society.

    For this, we should promote more people writing their histories, museums coming up with plurality in its exhibitions, and a school curriculum that allows for research into the social histories rather than to regurgitate the history of those who wield power. For these to flourish, perhaps the government can sponsor more in the arts (not just academic, but also in visual and performing arts). Hence, what makes BTN a poor performer in my view, is not who says what, rather what it excludes. And this is in part necessitated when we formalised the experience and appreciation of patriotism and nationalism.

  12. Facts says:

    I think we need to have more facts rather than personal opinion that can sometimes be based on emotions.


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