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