Categorised | Exclusives

Learning about “hak istimewa orang Melayu”

(Pic by lusi /

DR Harvin Kaur, 25, attended the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) pre-employment induction course in October 2008. A recent medical graduate who started her house officer year in Malaysia, Harvin has since resigned to follow her husband to Australia.

With the ongoing controversy regarding the government-run BTN, Harvin agreed to an exclusive e-mail interview, from India where she currently is, with The Nut Graph about her experiences during the programme.

The Nut Graph will be running a series of three exclusive interviews with former BTN programme participants from a variety of backgrounds. Their testimonies will help paint a picture about what the BTN programmes are really about. Are they racist or do they promote national unity? Are they geared at demonising the opposition? Are they fun and inspiring?

In the past year, The Nut Graph actually approached numerous former participants, but they all declined to go on the record for fear of losing their scholarships or positions. It is therefore timely and important for us to now publish the testimonies of those who agree to go on record. Here, then, is part one of our series on the BTN blues.

TNG: Where did you attend your BTN course?

Dr Harvin Kaur: It was at Kem Bina Negara Besut, Terengganu.

How long did it last?

Five days, four nights.

What was it for?

Pre-employment. The rule is that all new house officers must attend BTN and “kursus induksi” before starting work. However, the date that you start BTN is the date that you officially become a government servant, and you are paid starting from that date.

What would you say was the racial composition of the participants? How many participants were there?

[My estimate is] not less than 100.

At my BTN camp, there were many more Indian [Malaysians], almost 60%, and around 20% Chinese [Malaysian] and 20% Malay [Malaysian]. I think the reason for this is that the allocation is done based on university, and I was with a group of Russian and Ukrainian medical graduates — many Indian [Malaysians] go to Russia and Ukraine to study medicine.

What was the racial composition of the trainers and facilitators?

All the facilitators were Malay [Malaysian]. Also, they were all male. I would have preferred it if there was at least one female facilitator.

Did you know the trainers’ background or qualification? Were they BTN staff or external consultants?

There were some BTN staff there all day and night. But we also had some other facilitators for when we were split into smaller groups. The facilitator assigned to my group was a teacher.

Describe a typical day’s programme during the course, from the time you woke up until the time you went to sleep.

We had to wake up at 5:30am to attend a talk in the surau. The Muslim participants would have arrived earlier for morning prayers, and then we would join them. They talked about religion mostly, but tried to pass it off as “moral education”. Males and females were separated by a screen, and the men sat in front, women at the back.

After that, we went to our rooms and got ready, to shower and so on.

At 7am sharp we had to line up according to our groups, very military style, and sing the national anthem. Then we had some kind of sporting activity — one day we ran 1.5km; another day we had a physical test, the kind where you have to bend over and touch your toes, and so on.

We adjourned for breakfast and then had a short break to change clothes, and “classes” started. There were some talks in the main hall, and some days we had our group discussions.

In the evenings, we had some activities. One of the days we went rock climbing, another day we went to the beach, and one of the days we had this challenge trail, where we had to climb over walls and crouch in sand, like a mini military training. The evenings were always fun.

At night we had showertime, dinnertime, and then we met again in the main hall for another ceramah. We usually ended our day at around midnight, [and] went straight to bed.

Military style (Pic by Shariffc / Dreamstime)

Outside of the sessions, was there inter-racial/inter-religious/mixed-gender mingling?

Everyone mingled well. However, every single minute of our camp was in the itinerary, and we had to stick with our group members at all times — during dining, the ceramah, activities. Group members were allocated by the facilitators, and [racially] they divided us as equally as they could.

Were any of the lectures racist in nature? Can you describe one that was particularly disturbing?

There are a few things that stand out in my memory.

One of them was during the smaller group discussions — we were given a task which was something along the lines of: “If there were RM6 billion left to three families, and the will states that it should be divided fairly, how would you divide it? Family A has six children, Family B has three children and Family C has one child.”

(Pic by Kuanchong / Dreamstime)

A lot of people said it should be divided such that 60% goes to Family A and 30% to Family B and so forth … I, on the other hand, stated that just because Family C has one child doesn’t mean that they should get so little of the money. Each family still needs the basic things — house, car — and half of the money should be divided equally among the three families and the second half should be divided according to the number of children they had. Another participant also had a similar idea, that there shouldn’t be such a big discrepancy in the amount of money given.

The facilitator seemed very distressed that we had such ideas and even said to me, “Saya risau tentang Harvin.” This might have had something to do with a personality test we did earlier on in the day, but I’m pretty sure it was also due to [my] answer. He stated at the end that the money should be divided according to the number of children, and also that this reflected the proportion of races in Malaysia, and how we allocate the budget, and so on.

Later, when I spoke to some of these participants, they said they had already anticipated such [questions], and didn’t want to complicate things or get into trouble.

Also, during one of the ceramah, the process of Malaysia’s independence was one of the topics. One point they repeatedly stressed was that during Independence, the Malays agreed to the jus soli principle — those born in Malaya would immediately gain citizenship — and in return the non-Malays agreed to “hak istimewa orang Melayu”.

They said non-Malay [Malaysians] should be grateful that they were allowed to stay on.

During the group discussions, the definition of orang Melayu/bumiputera [based on Article 160 of the Federal Constitution] was drilled into our heads.

Were any of these lectures documented? Was there a written syllabus for the course? Or was the content communicated verbally or through other means?

Yes, there was a written syllabus, and we were allowed to borrow the notes to study for our test on the last day. It had a lot of stuff on Independence, and structure of the government, and so on.

The lectures were presented to us in Powerpoint.

For the group discussions, there wasn’t a written syllabus. In my opinion, the group discussions were an opportunity for them to kind of tap into our minds and see what we felt about certain issues. The facilitator kept stressing that nothing would leave the room, I think to make us open up more.

How did the course impact you? How did it impact the other participants, from your observation?

Well, the course left me feeling angry, especially about the “hak istimewa” thing. I know what it is, but the way they tried to justify it was ridiculous. I think some people did share the same feelings as me, but we did not discuss this at length so I can’t elaborate.

One newfound friend, an Indian [Malaysian] girl, was complying completely with everything our facilitator said. Later I found out she had received scholarships from MIC since [she’d been] in school, and also throughout her medical course. Both her parents were government servants.

Are there any positive things about the course?

Yes, everyone got along well; we made lots of new friends.

If you have a personal BTN experience you would like to share, please e-mail [email protected].

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8 Responses to “Learning about “hak istimewa orang Melayu””

  1. racist says:

    There’s nothing racist here. I really need some racist stories to stir up racial sentiments … otherwise, I’ll be a TOTAL FAILURE.

  2. kamal says:

    The point of BTN is to tell those who attend what is state sanctioned nationalism and patriotism. Is it divisive? Yes. Any attempts at imposing a model of patriotism is immediately outmoded, narrow and in my opinion, irrelevant, oh and wrong.

    Look where it took Japan and Germany in the earlier half of the 20th century? We already have laws to regulate society.

    Expressing love for the people and country should be left for people to freely reflect and express the diversity they experience and embody. The meaning of patriotism and nationalism to any of us should be rooted in our personal experiences as part of the collective.

    I am surprised that some quarters are calling for their own version of BTN or an improvement of it. Whether or not BTN promotes racism to me is irrelevant (although experiencing such a program can be disturbing) – it is the very idea that we need a state sanctioned program to instill nationalism and patriotism that is worrying.

    In the end, all that money allocated for BTN should go towards addressing serious gaps in access to public services for the economically disadvantaged members of our society. A yearly budget like that can have substantial impact – let’s say on a nationwide program to promote reading (remember all those perpustakaan bergerak). Or to promote dental hygine in all primary schools (I remember learning to brush my teeth in Standard 1 in a school somewhere in a rural setting near Kuala Selangor). Or to ensure low cost and low-middle cost housing estates have green spaces and activity spaces that allow for mental and physical growth. There have to be policies that work towards flattening the disparities. One way is through ensuring access and quality in a broad range of public services. We seem to have been better at it before the late 1980’s.

    And we should drop race from our politics and public discourse. As anyone who has read the Malay dilemma or the Myth of the Lazy Natives, would by now realize race/kaum is an unhelpful concept at best (what can you do with a biologically deterministic concept?) or at worst, as a scholar (whose name I have forgotten) described, the most dangerous of ideas. And if I may add, it is not dangerous because of sensitivity inherent to itself, but of how easily it can be applied for nefarious ends.

  3. Uzbek says:

    Whooaaaa… is that it? Only historical facts and no racist indoctrination?

    You mean all these stories by uncle Kit are not true? What a bummer!

  4. non-racist says:

    Well, to a racist, of course there’s nothing racist because their eyes already blinded by a thick layer […]. Remove that layer […] and you will see the “Hitler” in you.

  5. DrDoctor says:

    From Harvin’s story it appears that BTN is now a prominent feature in government service. 10 years ago BTN attendance was not necessary before starting a government job. Most doctors in fact finished their compulsory service for three years and left to start their own private practice without needing this. However now it seems that anyone who starts as a houseman or any government job can’t get their salary without going through this indoctrination.

  6. khalid says:

    Hi, I attended a BTN session back in 2002. BTN has a lot of racial elements where the contents of the things taught and said could stir a racial war. I am Malay [Malaysian] and after attending the BTN, I came more racist towards my own race. I have no racist feelings towards other races.

    In my opinion, jus soli, ketuanan Melayu, kepentingan hak Melayu, etc. should be abolished. Those rules were done back then towards the migrants but now the children of the migrants or the grandchildren of the migrants are no longer migrants. They themselves are Malaysian. Malaysia is their home.

    If anyone is interested in interviewing me regarding the BTN, I would very much like that. I could help paint the picture of how the BTN looks like.

    Editor’s note: Khalid, do e-mail us at [email protected] and let’s see what we can do.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  7. Chandra says:

    There should be transperancy in the syllabus taught and should be published. The board to run the scheme should be multi-racial and so shhould the staff. The course should reflect the multi-racial/cultural build of the country and [not] be hijacked by racists or the ketuanan Melayu lot.

  8. TJ says:

    Humans have two base emotions – love or fear. Malay [Malaysian] special rights reflect the government’s fear of being stripped off of their power and profit. In a nutshell, money and endless corruption – both are scams to forever enslave the people.

    If the Malaysian government truly cares for the people it serves, it must now grow up and live a moneyless freeconomy.

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