HOW have Malaysians been discussing the recent controversy over the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) programmes? Let us count the ways.
There are those who defend the BTN courses, such as Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Then there are the critics. Some, like de facto Law Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, say the courses merely need revamping. Others, like DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang, have called for them to be scrapped altogether.
There is nothing wrong with having a diversity of views. But the issue with the BTN is this: Should public money be spent to sustain programmes that are, at their core, meant to indoctrinate certain sectors of Malaysians?
Instead of keeping focused on the matter at hand, discussions on the BTN have gone off on many tangents. Take, for instance, the public forum organised by the Selangor government on 23 Dec 2009, titled BTN: Patriotic or racist?. The entirely male panel, comprising Seri Setia assemblyperson Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Batu Caves assemblyperson Amirudin Shari, Malaysiakini columnist KJ John, and writer and cultural activist Eddin Khoo, tried to address the topic. But the forum quickly lost focus.
Here’s a sample of the discussion flow:
Amirudin (pre-open discussion): “It is damaging to indoctrinate people to love their own race, because this may lead them to excuse abuses along racial lines. For example, to say that it is okay that so-and-so is corrupt because at least he/she is still Malay.”
Nik Nazmi (pre-open discussion): “My name and Amirudin’s name were singled out on an Umno supporters’ online forum because we were the two Malay [Malaysian] Selangor assemblypersons who spoke out against the BTN.”
John (pre-open discussion): “The BTN programmes might have been relevant in the post-13 May 1970s, but not anymore. Patriotism needs to be instilled, but BTN is not the vehicle for it.”
Khoo (pre-open discussion): “The BTN courses represent a crisis in history. History is being revised so that it doesn’t encompass all of us, but rather divides us, when cosmopolitanism was historically a fact of life in Southeast Asia.”
Audience member identifying as Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz: “The BTN merely teaches what is in the constitution, and is a vehicle to instil patriotism.” Azam’s input got longer and louder, and when the moderator asked him to summarise, he said, “I thought you guys uphold freedom of expression? Looks like there is no freedom of expression here.”
Audience member identifying as Zakaria Abdul Rahim: “[My BTN experience] really was racist — I was told Chinese [Malaysians] were dangerous and everything. But then I went for a Malaysian Institute of Management training in the 1990s. The speakers were multiracial, the participants were also multiracial. In fact, we were encouraged to mingle across racial lines, unlike in the BTN course, where we were isolated. After that I stayed in the UK for six years. People warned me that the UK was very racist, but I’m sorry to say that Malaysia is definitely more racist than the UK.”
Audience member identifying as Mohd Akmal Mohd Dahlan: “BTN is not racist. What’s wrong with asking someone to love their own race? It’s not about hating other races. I discovered myself in BTN, I discovered my capabilities.”
Unidentified male audience member: “Now we only have two choices, either we choose race over religion or religion over race. If we choose race over religion, we are choosing discrimination. But religion is universal, so we have to choose the example of the prophet Muhammad.”
Audience member identifying as Amirul: “The fact that you can hold this forum means that there is freedom in Malaysia. Why not change your forum title to Chinese schools: Patriotic or racist? or Indonesia: Patriotic or racist? In Indonesia, they only allow their citizens to study in one language, you know.”
Amirudin (in closing): “(Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Sungai Petani and) BTN founder Datuk Johari Abdul told me that the BTN was set up in 1974 to counter Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim because his movement was on the rise.”
Why on earth did the focus shift to things like Indonesia, Chinese schools, the status of Islam, and Anwar?
The real question
The 23 Dec 2009 forum was not the only place in which such tangents happened. Blogger Amin Ahmad writes: “Many are saying that Anwar was also involved in the BTN once. But what many are not saying is that at least previously the BTN’s religious module was clearer.”
Is the discussion even about the BTN anymore, or is the BTN merely a bogey for some people to push certain barrels: Islamic state, Anwar, ketuanan Melayu, the Barisan Nasional’s continued hegemony, and so on?
The BTN says its vision is to “instil patriotism and good values, and also to inculcate loyalty towards the government.” The thing now is that former BTN inductees are coming out in public to testify that some of their course content was indeed racist and anti-opposition. From their testimonies, it is also clear that BTN programmes provide systematic indoctrination. So the question is, why is the government spending taxpayers’ money to not only indoctrinate Malaysians, but to indoctrinate them with bigotry?
That the government even needs a department to “instil patriotism” is alarming. Citizens spend most of their public lives either in school or at work. Citizens pay taxes. They interact with each other in social and private spaces which the state needs to protect and respect. If in these daily endeavours citizens cannot find enough to make them feel “patriotic” or “love for the country”, the expectation that the BTN can indoctrinate citizens with patriotism smells like a rat.
Indoctrination, after all, is the opposite of education. Education aims to inform individuals so that they are empowered to make their own decisions about their lives. Indoctrination is about systematically making sure people accept doctrines without criticism or question. So, the question remains: Why is public money still being spent on a programme of mass indoctrination?