I NEVER attended a Biro Tata Negara (BTN) programme. But I, too, sat in a darkened room while the facilitator taught the song Warisan, which ended with the line Melayu kan gagah di Nusantara and some participants crying.
I, too, was made to carry an egg and then reprimanded for letting a mischievous trainer defile it with his magic marker. I, too, was subjected to military drills, obstacle courses, and other group activities.
I was a Petronas scholar, and I attended the pre-departure orientation for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia leavers going overseas for their tertiary education. This was in 1995 — nearly half a lifetime ago for me. For a long time, I did not know how many people had gone through the same experience. I did not know if I was alone in the way I felt about it. But interviewing three former BTN inductees and talking to others who refused to go on the record has triggered several memories for me. I am now left with too many questions.
How many other Malaysians have been put through the BTN’s programmes? How many other BTN-like programmes are out there? Was the content the same all around? Were the BTN programmes differently executed when they were first conceived? Was the racism and indoctrination merely a figment of my, of our collective, imagination?
A hazy picture
These questions are difficult to answer, given the still small numbers of BTN inductees who are willing to go on the record with their stories. But based on interviews The Nut Graph has done, a hint of a picture emerges.
It appears as though the content of BTN programmes is racialised. Some argue that the content is not racist, however. But then, this seems to depend on what kind of group the programme is tailored for:
If it is predominantly non-Malay Malaysian, and participants are medical graduates, overt racism is probably absent — instead they get hypothetical scenarios which they need to view through racialised lenses.
If the group is mixed but predominantly Malay Malaysian, then the rhetoric is likely stronger, but shies away from outright racism — non-Malay Malaysians are merely reminded to be grateful to the Barisan Nasional (BN).
But it is when the group is homogenously Malay-Muslim Malaysian that we can assume the programme goes for the racial jugular — for example, Chinese Malaysians are waging a hidden war against Malay Malaysians.
Of course, these observations are only from three individual interviews which are hardly representative of all BTN inductees. Furthermore, as one participant points out, few BTN inductees have had the capacity or foresight to record these utterances. In fact, it appears as though the groups of BTN inductees were isolated by design.
My own Petronas programme lasted two whole weeks. Two weeks of complete isolation for a group of 17-year-olds. Two weeks of being allowed to sleep only past midnight and being roused at 4:30am. Two weeks of non-stop lectures and activities. After my parents picked me up at the end of the orientation, I fell into a deep, 24-hour sleep.
When I awoke, I was terrified of leaving to study in Australia. I was terrified I might apostasise by accident, that my faith in Islam would be diluted if I mixed with non-Muslim Australians, and that I might burn in hell if I ever strayed.
A potent combination
But if BTN and BTN-like programmes were so terrible, why have inductees been keeping them a secret all this while? The obvious answer is that they have been effective. Not just because they were sprung upon participants at the last minute, or made compulsory in order for large numbers of Malaysians to graduate from university or to keep decent jobs. The reality is that the BTN programmes are not entirely bad.
In all three interviews, participants repeat that there were fun aspects of the programme. In my Petronas experience, for example, I remember kayaking with friends in the sea. I remember being comforted after the facilitator praised my flawless tajwid when I recited selected Suras from the Quran. I remember the friends I made, and how we chortled at those who fell asleep during their Isya (night-time prayer) prostrations.
When these memories are mixed with subtle messages, however, like “Chinese (Malaysians) are going to steal your land”, a potent cocktail is produced. And if the world outside the BTN programme is already defined by racial and religious divisions, doesn’t that make the cocktail even deadlier? What long-term side effects would it have on the brain and the heart?
Perhaps one of the side effects is fear. Perhaps another is racism. And perhaps another is anger and resentment. Even when physicians prescribe medication, they can only warn patients of known side effects — every individual could potentially react differently to the same treatment. But some treatments address certain symptoms better than others.
What, then, was the BTN trying to treat? Does anybody have an honest answer to this question?
Perhaps the programme was trying to rob participants of their capacity to celebrate diversity. But how would a person go about proving this? It’s difficult enough to solve thefts of tangibles such as cars, cash and computers, but to claim that one’s capacity for diversity has been stolen?
But imagine if that’s really what happened — that the BTN, and all other programmes inspired by it, actually stole away generation after generation of Malaysians and their capacity to love and respect each other. If that were true, then those Malaysians who dream of a better, more inclusive Malaysia, have their work cut out for them.
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