ARIF Johny Abdullah, 34, attended his Biro Tata Negara (BTN) programme back in the 1990s when he was in secondary school. He has blogged about his experiences at the camp, including an escape from camp grounds to find replacements for participants who had broken their eggs.
Arif is a Sino-Kadazan from Sabah and officially converted to Islam in his early teens. He tells The Nut Graph that his interesting position as an East Malaysian bumiputera might be why he resisted most of what was taught during the BTN programme. He is now an operation manager at a company that manages cybercafés.
The Nut Graph sat down with Arif in Cheras on 21 Dec 2009 for this final instalment, for 2009, in our series of interviews on the BTN blues.
TNG: When and where did you attend your BTN programme?
Arif Johny Abdullah: I know it was in Perak, and I know we passed by Kellie’s Castle to get there. Tapi nama penuh kem saya tak ingat. I think it was in 1994. I was in Sekolah Menengah Seri Perak, Parit Buntar, and I think I was in Form Four.
How long did the programme last?
Itulah, saya pun tak ingat sangat. It was definitely not longer than five days. I think it was four days and three nights.
How many participants went for the programme?
I would say 150 to 200 students, boys and girls, from secondary schools throughout the Kerian district. Sebenarnya, the programme was meant for students from Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM), now Universiti Teknologi Mara, Manjung. I remember this because (former Prime Minister Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) was supposed to come and speak to them. But then Mahathir had something to do in Langkawi at that time.
So they postponed the orientation for the ITM students and substituted the programme with us instead. We were told the ITM students were special, because they were going to “fly” (go to university overseas), but we were told we were special too, I don’t know why.
The participants semuanya Melayu and Muslim. I was considered Malay (Malaysian) too, even though I don’t consider myself Malay.
What about the trainers?
There were two groups of trainers. There were the facilitators who were there watching over us every day, around 15 to 20 of them. Some of them looked like former police or army personnel.
And then the second group consisted of the external speakers who came in to give us lectures. There were around five of them, including lecturers from public universities, I can’t remember which ones, and the former speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. All the trainers were Malay (Malaysian) Muslims, and most of them were men.
What was a typical day like during the programme?
Biasalah, we all had to get up before subuh (dawn prayers). On one of the nights, we had to stay up and do qiamullail (doctrinally, these are optional night-time prayers). The strange thing is that one of the days of the camp was a Friday, and we didn’t go to the mosque for (obligatory) prayers. Maybe they were trying to isolate us that strictly, saya tak tahu.
The activities, macam biasa — lectures, group activities, and don’t forget the singing. We all had to learn that song, Warisan, you know? It’s a very sweet song, tapi I realised its true meaning (about Malay supremacy).
They turned off the lights in the room and taught us the song. It was very psychological. After singing the song, some of the participants started crying, especially the girls.
Was there anything else about the programme that was racist? Was there opposition-bashing?
Of course. At that time, PAS wasn’t as strong as it is now, but they were still accused of ajaran sesat. The speakers said PAS was using religion to gain power, and it was mixing religion and politics. DAP also of course kena — apparently it was anti-Melayu because of its “Malaysian Malaysia” slogan. At that time, I didn’t even know what the DAP was.
During one of the lectures, one of the external speakers asked us, “Do you know why Chinese (Malaysians) are dangerous?” He continued, “The Chinese (Malaysians) in Melaka bury their weapons in one of their cemeteries, and are waiting for the day when they can gali these weapons and lawan ‘us’ for real.” Of course, I don’t have a voice recording of this or anything, but I remember it very clearly.
How did you feel when you heard all of this?
Conflicted, of course. I had never considered myself Malay, even though I’m familiar with Malay culture and kampung culture. I don’t equate kampung culture with Malay culture. For example, when my friends taught me how they eat with their fingers and so on. To me, that’s cara orang kampung, that’s all.
But I was lucky because I wasn’t alone in feeling this way during the programme. I had Malay (Malaysian) friends who were angry, too. They were not exactly angry about the content at that point, but more because we were all forced to attend against our will. You know, we were only told the day before we went that we needed to attend the programme. That was during the weekend, and my friends and I were all hostel boarders. Our plans for the weekend, including those who wanted to balik kampung, were ruined just like that.
So how did you change after the camp?
I don’t know, but maybe this experience aroused my curiosity and has caused me to fight back until now. I was an ordinary student before attending the camp. In school, orang yang kami tak suka kami akan momok-momokkan by calling them Chin Peng or Shamsiah Fakeh. But I don’t know, maybe BTN changed me and made me want to find out more about them.
I still did not consider myself Malay even after attending the programme. I mean, at that time I didn’t know what “racism” was, I just knew that I didn’t like what was being taught during the programme.
And like I said, the good thing is there were those of us who didn’t agree with the camp and stuck together. We couldn’t fight back openly, we still had to mengalah in front of the facilitators. But we stuck together even after returning to school. I ended up getting involved in the Reformasi movement during the 1999 general election. And when I voted in March 2008, I voted for Dr Lo’ Lo’ Mohamad Ghazali from PAS.
Do you think the programme had anything good about it?
The group activities, the marching drills, the motivational talks — these were actually good. But then, the facilitators would justify every single activity by saying, “This is why Malay (Malaysians) must work hard, otherwise ‘they’ will rob us of this country.” The activities were good, but their motivations were racist.
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