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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

National Service: Boon or Bane? (Part II of II)

Do read National Service: Boon or Bane? (Part I of II) before proceeding to read the following post written by Michelle Tam.

How was the food? Was there enough for everyone?

I get this question all this time - seems like the quality of food there is a major concern on the mind of most Malaysians!

First off, let's discuss the quantity of food available.

As you may have surmised, we were fed 6 times a day. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, evening tea, dinner, and a light supper of sorts at around 10.30 pm. For breakfast, there would be stacks of fluffy white bread, slabs of margarine and containers of kaya and strawberry jam and even peanut butter, if I remember correctly. There would be hard boiled eggs and kicap manis. There would also be heavier dishes for those who like a hearty breakfast - sometimes there would be fried kuey teow, nasi lemak, roti canai, porridge, and a few other varieties that would differ and rotate from day to day. For the heavier meals like lunch and dinner, there would be rice and an assortment of dishes like curries, fried stuff, and vegetables and there would always be fruit at the end of every meal. I remember us getting bananas, apples, oranges and the juicy pears that everybody loved. For the teatimes, there would be sweet, hot tea and little snacks or local kuih like currypuffs and even bubur chacha.

It could be said that the food was abundant - only the time to eat it was lacking. There were never any limits - for instance, if you liked the pears and wanted to bring some back to your dorm, by all means load some onto your plate. The girls always ate less than the boys, and boys being boys, their share of food on their side of the canteen would be finished first. If most of the girls had taken their share (it was a buffet style dining concept) and there was lots left on our side, the boys were more than welcome to take second or even third helpings.

Sounds great, you say! Looks like there's enough to go around for everyone! That's very true, but let's look at the quality of the food.

The food might not suit certain palates and tastebuds - I know some people who rarely ate at the canteen and chose to survive on snack food and fast food available at the cafe (a very popular hangout spot - the equivalent of a Starbucks in any major shopping mall) and a burger stall which was also near our dorms. Some deemed the food provided too oily, others too spicy, while some were just picky eaters. Some only appear at the canteen when there's nice food on the menu, like an English breakfast with baked beans and sausages, or a barbecue dinner with succulent lamb cutlets and coleslaw.

It really depends on how selective you are with what you eat, what sort of a budget you had, and what you deem edible. To me, everything was edible...nothing would outright kill you. Besides, it's National Service, not a gourmet festival! Those who came from less fortunate backgrounds wouldn't bother paying extra money for a burger when they could get their meals at the canteen for free. Those who didn't like the food and could afford it, chose to pay to get something else to eat.

What about the vegetarians, you ask? Well, the management at my camp was very attentive. They provided good food for the vegetarians and there would always be a special corner where vegetarian food was served, like dhall and sambal tofu and an assortment of vegetables. Personally, I thought very highly of them for catering to their needs without fail.

So there you have it - don't worry about going hungry or starving at NS!

Hmm, your schedule sounds very packed. What did you do for fun?

I have to say that for the first batch of any NS intake (the ones in January), the schedule is VERY hectic and the activities are spaced rather closely to one another. Why so?

See, the first batch gets the MOST holidays of ANY intake. We get breaks for Chinese New Year, the odd day off here and there, and according to my estimation, I actually served only two and a half months, not three! Therefore, to make sure we had as thorough an experience as other batches, our schedule was decidedly more packed.

The activities themselves were fun most of the time, but during the weekends where we get our handphones back (YAY!), most decide to catch up with their family and friends. See, it's much better to 'gayut' or talk endlessly on your handphone as opposed to yakking away on the public phone while a long queue grows behind you. Others choose to read, play board games or just chill out with their friends.

There was also a TV in the canteen where you could catch up on whatever RTM and TV3 were offering - of course, there was no Astro. You could also hang out at the cafe and chat over a cup of coffee.

How about your religious needs? There's a surau for the Muslims, but what about those of other faiths?

When it came to religion, as far as I know there was never a problem in my camp. The management was always very accommodating. Buddhists would be brought to a nearby temple, Hindus to another temple, and Punjabis would be brought all the way to Seremban (my camp's in PD) so that they could pray at their Gudhwara.

Let me relate to you a personal experience. I'm a Christian, and there weren't many of us in camp. At first, our trainers brought us to a church where the sermon or the prayer meeting was conducted in Mandarin. Problem is, most of us couldn't understand much Mandarin, we were 'bananas' so to speak. So we told our trainers the problem, and the weekend after that, they drove around with us in the van until we found a church where the service was conducted in English! I for one really appreciated the fact that they understood our problem and took the trouble to accommodate our request.

Hmm, NS sounds pretty bearable so far. Surely there were some downs?

Of course there were some less than pleasant parts...but they weren't horrible enough to ruin my entire experience.

For instance, I didn't really agree with the whole 'One person slips up, everyone gets punished' rule. It didn't strike me as fair, and being a Corporal or one of the trainees that were granted ranks, you get scolded before the trainees in your company get their share of the tongue lashing. However, I learned that this proved to be a somewhat effective measure - the jokers and the less disciplined lot, while loving the attention they get when they goof off, learned that others didn't appreciate doing push ups or extra marching as punishment for their deeds. To avoid being disliked by their peers, they learned to behave.

There were also times when everyone got yelled at for the mistakes of only a few. I remember when we were all decked out in our traditional best for a cultural night, when we were punished just because a few people had broken some rules. Imagine girls in baju kurungs and kebayas and guys in baju melayu and kurtas, looking all nice and elegant, having to do push ups. Looking back, it must have been quite a comical sight!

There was also a foul black pool beneath the monkey bars - those unable to make it across would fall into the nasty stagnant water and clamber out smelling like dead fish. Needless to say, most of us had a dip in it as pretty much everyone was useless at monkey bars. However, with the ironically named 'Kolam 100 Bunga' or 'Pond of Fragrant Flowers' (there were many names, but I only remember that particular one) beneath our swinging feet and straining arms, many of us learned. Fast.

Also, there were supernatural sightings, which occurs in almost all camps really. Some on night duty reported unusual coldness at certain part of the camps, while others swore they heard boots clomping on the roof of some dorms.

For those who dislike physical labour like mopping or cleaning out the bathroom, NS will be difficult as we have gotong royongs quite often where everyone is expected to pitch in. Those who are handphone dependent or Internet addicts will also find themselves restless and feel 'cut off' from the world.

Last, but not least, apart from my friends and family back home - I missed my washing machine very much. Remember people, the TV you can do without, while a washing machine really saves you a lot of time and effort! We did have a laundry service that washed our class clothes, sports clothes and famous 'blue zebra' uniforms, but this was tricky - if you don't time your laundry correctly, you'd have to wait for the laundry truck to come, quickly haul the big heavy laundry bag into the dorm and quickly find the uniform set you need! This happens sometimes when people forget to send out one set of uniform for washing yesterday, wear a nice clean set today, then realise they don't have a set for tomorrow!

What were the parts of NS that you truly enjoyed?

Now that you know most of the basics of NS, let me remind you of the good that makes me recall it with fondness.

My trainers were very sporting. Sometimes, when we have packed lunches in the bus on the way back from community service trips, we'd ask them to let us have a picnic of sorts, to let us eat at the beach. When we weren't hard pressed for time, they would agree and join us for lunch, and we'd scamper off to the beach happily, find a nice picnic table, distribute the packets of food and eat together with the wind in our hair, the sea right before our eyes and golden sand beneath our feet.

Sometimes, the female trainers would join us girls for a giggly gossip session at night, just joining us in our dorms in their pajamas and bringing along their bolster, and it would be SUCH fun to hear about previous batches, how much naughtier our batch is even though the ones before were no angels, share snacks and laugh and talk into the wee hours of the night. The trainers were still authority figures, but more importantly, they became our friends.

I really, really enjoyed the Community Service module - there were many activities, but I remember helping to clean out the Balai Raya of a village together with my friends, walking from door to door in another kampung to talk about the dangers of Dengue fever and handing out pamphlets so that the kampung folk would be reminded of how to prevent the Aedes mosquito from breeding.

I got to meet people from all walks of life, from all sorts of backgrounds. There were extremely rich people, and extremely poor people whose parents could not afford to visit them. There were those hoping to enter university and talking of education plans after SPM, while others spoke of returning to jobs as a factory worker or as a salesgirl. I got to know the person behind the stereotype - a Minah Rempit or a female illegal racer, who really was quite sweet and had a wicked sense of humour, and scars on her knuckles as a testament to the accidents she got into. A boyish girl who got into trouble for her penchant for the fairer sex, but was really a very down to earth person who only got defensive and abrupt when people questioned her sexual orientation.

The numerous inter company competitions were fun and fostered a healthy sense of competition as well as a loyalty to one's company. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. We all had our own company songs, cheers and flags, which we had to guard zealously. If any company lost their flag i.e. left it unattended and let a trainer take it, the entire company would be punished. We were all fiercely competitive, striving to be the best in any activity, be it water rafting or jungle trekking.

We got to see some cool things, like a huge weaponry and army vehicle exhibition. I remember looking at the gleaming barrel of a machine gun on display, and watching another soldier demonstrate how a rifle is properly held. One of the best memories I have is actually being inside an armoured tank, and emerging from the top together with two other friends, laughing exultantly in the sun as we waved to our friends and the trainees from other camps while the tank rumbled around in a big circle. This was an honour and a privilege available only to a few due to time constraints, and those with ranks were given a chance to ride in the tank - a chance which I will always cherish.

Others had a chance to be on a ship at a naval base, which must have been awesome. I got to see JPA RELA members scaling down a tall tower in a jaw dropping display of skill and bravery as they demonstrated a rescue attempt for civilians trapped in burning buildings or those unable to make it to safety. I got to see the inside of a fully equipped ambulance, the fireproof gear of firemen and the tools they use. I trekked through the jungle with my company behind me, each of us holding on to one another's belt in a demonstration of faith. I had a parang in one hand, and the only lantern we had in another, while another one of rank navigated our way through the leafy darkness with a compass.

We battled the choppy currents of the sea as we rowed our rafts, yelling out a count in unison to help us glide through the waters. We did the camp's signature 'Chicken Dance' totally unabashed, enjoying ourselves en masse as our trainers turned up the song on the radio. We slept beneath the stars, waded through mud, frolicked in the sea, clomped through swampy marshes in jungles, built glorious bonfires that kept away wild animals, were scared off by hundreds of fire ants, but helped each other set up camp in a different location.

Sometimes we got into arguments, sometimes a company declared another company to be their rival for the champion's cup, and sometimes our competitiveness got the better of us, but on the last day, we all cried like babies as we waved goodbye to our friends. I remember super macho guys weeping quietly as they hugged their good friends tightly, girls taking pictures together with puffy red eyes and half-happy-half-sad smiles, people exchanging handphone numbers and e-mail numbers at the very last minute. I remember looking up at a bus, with a boy gesturing the universal 'call me' sign from behind his window, and how we laughed as he mouthed his number slowly while I took it down! I watched the buses depart from the compound one by one - being a Serembanite, my parents picked me up, while my friends from Johor and Malacca returned to their hometowns by bus.

I have a whole treasure trove of memories, mostly good, and I hope I've managed to give you readers a clearer idea of what goes on in the 3 month program. It was truly an unforgettable experience for me, and if you guys get the call (and if it doesn't clash with your tertiary education plans), I entreat you to give it a go. Apart from having what would hopefully be a great time, you'll learn a whole lot of things, like independence, resilience, patience, a greater understanding and empathy for people from all walks of life, a reinforced sense of unity - and, of course, compass reading skills ;)

Carpe diem!
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  1. I'm an ex-NS trainees...
    I just completed my 'service', I'm in 2008 first batch. I 'service' in Camp Sentosa, Chenderiang,Tapah. For those who are aware of NS news, yes, the same camp that a mala guy just passed away. not the same batch though.

    i'm here to support the whole NS article.
    it's true that, NS provide you a lot of valuable experience that would help you in future. You might not know it now, but, it does help.

    NS is actually the real society out there. That we are going to face after we complete our secondary studies. You will meet people from all walks of life, all with differnent personality. The difference is NS is a protected society, there are trainers awailable to guide us to lead a better life. (or change our bad behaviour)

    Just to share with all of you, the trainers won't forget about you, if both of you had build a strong bond. last week, one of my trainer that is on leave came to my house and visit me. It's very touching.

    Good luck to those who are chosen for NS, this is a gift, not a burden.


  2. Myself and my brother has just escaped this NS thingy, which is to our regret. As an outsider looking in, these are the few things which I have observed :
    a) I totally agree with Jenn, NS is definitely a constructive activity for the young, where it helps to shape their mind, exposed them to their responsibility as they stepped into adulthood and, of course an activity which allow them to mix with people from all background.
    b) However, we can't neglect some of the horror stories which we read and heard every now and then. Cases where trainee is abused by trainers, the camp is not a completely a safe place to be, trainees contacted all sort of weird deceased while in the camp and so forth.

    Therefore, if our government will just go an extra mile to ensure a 100% safe camp for our youth to grab all the benefits NS has to offer , and the parents & kids just opened up their mind to this training (since most developed countries are doing so eg: Taiwan, Singapore , South Korea), I'm sure, NS Malaysia will be one of the successful program, which our country has ever introduce.

  3. jenn : thanks for reading - i'm glad you support/like the article :D

    and yup, NS is a definitely a blessing and not a burden if you tackle it with the right attitude and outlook :)

    yen : yes, there will always be horror stories (kind of like real life) but like you said, it's a relatively new program compared to that of the more developed countries in our region.

    we've still got a long way to go, and hopefully the major kinks in the NS program will be ironed out in time (and quick!) for a safer, better experience for teens nationwide :)

  4. I am 17 this year. I heard a lot about NS. Good and bad from those ex trainee.

    I agree there is a lot of benefit you will get from NS. But think about it seriously, what had happen for the past few years?

    Every year, there will be at least a few people die from NS. I know, its out of a few thousands people. Sorry to say, you might be one of them.

    NS is something I am looking forward to. But after what I read from newspaper over the past few years, the way I look at NS is never the same anymore.

    That's what I think of. Sorry if this comment actually offended anyone.

  5. reading the post refresh my memory back then when i'm going through NS.

    it do have good and bad thing happen (well..everything does..isn't?)

    but what can i say is.. people usually understand thing from what they see and hear from other...

    the truth only be learn by the one who experince it...

    it will be some hard time..

    but all memories will be sweet to remember..

    i love it when i'm in NS..
    and the feeling will be remain forever...

  6. jun liang : no, your comment wasn't offensive, don't worry.

    i can't deny that deaths occur during NS, and this is utterly regrettable...it highlights the need for the kinks and flaws in NS to be ironed out.

    NS is, or can be, an enjoyable experience, provided all parties are careful enough - trainees should know the limits of their physical exertions, and should undergo a full medical check up so that they know if their health will be endangered by strenous activities.

    camp officials should ensure all possible safety measures be employed during training, as well as address the health concerns of trainees immediately/asap so that they can receive proper treatment outside camp.

    notorious_kill-joy : glad you had a good time at NS - and came away with memories to cherish :)

    good and bad things happen, i agree, but let's hope that there will be no more/considerably less unfortunate incidents in the batches to come!

  7. Thanks a lot for the total account for sharing your experience during NS! Awesome article!
    I was a 2007 ex-NS trainee. FYI, I was Ketua Keseluruhan in Kem Princess Haliza, Sepang, Selangor.
    There are a lot of people get shocked when I told them so, but I said, "Why not?!"
    Yes, I felt much more hardies than normal trainees, but finally I enjoyed it. Hardship trains us! Actually NS is just a very small deal... Try any wilderness camp before, then only you will feel the real suffer!
    Oh my dear people, especially those chosen ones, enjoy yourself! Mind makes human!

  8. Erm, may i know, how do the government choose students to go from NS? Is it that every family must have someone who wil get chosen?

  9. The government chooses those NS trainees randomly. And it is certainly not true that every family must have someone who will get chosen.

  10. i m a chosen for ns 2009. i wan to ask izit everyone recognise each one well in the camp? is the trainers helpful to the trainees?

  11. i m selected 4 NS 2009..i dunno watz gonna happen ther..actully,i'm kinda sad as all ma plans 4 olidayz wen down da DRAIN!! fter stayin in hostel 4 5 years,y m i selected too??? thez is unfair!!!!

  12. What if you dont speak Malay at all? Will they speak English?

  13. I am interested with your article,it was sound good!

    but i am a less active student.Is that any difficult for me?

    How should i overcome it because i also has been chosen in

    this year!

  14. Thanks for sharing.
    I never thought of NS to be so interesting and memorable.Though i'm not chosen...i feel like looking forward to being one of the chosens so much.hehe

  15. the nazi youth had similar activities too. the thin edge of the wedge you guys, a precedence for something horrible doesnt usually look bad at first.

    3 months of racial inter-mingling to remedy decades of racial incorrectness? where is the result? is there an objective report on this issue? how do NS leavers fare in racial relations when they proceed to tertiary education or work? talk is cheap.

    do msians really need a 3 month camp to achieve the aims of "meeting new people", "having fun time", "doing household chores", etc? this is sad.

    not to mention billions of ringgit of our parents' tax money that couldve funded hundreds of clinics, schools, sships etc are drained to unscrupulous contractors, caterers charging ridiculously for their products and services. please tell me again who supports the NS that has led to the above problems?

    young lives are lost as a result of these forced encampments. so basically, for you guys to enjoy whatever pleasures you had, someone needs to die. this is the non-monetary price tag someone elses' parents had to pay for your "household chores education", "flying fox adventures", and "monkey bar escapades". accidents do happen of course, and the authorities should do their most to prevent such fatalities from ever happening again. however to be as realistic as one should in these matters, the msian authorities cannot be trusted to care for the lives of your 17yo child. meaning, for the programme to continue, another kid has to die.

    one life is already too expensive for any national programme. i challenge those who enjoyed the programme to write a thank you letter to the parents of those who died, conveying gratitude for these deaths, they could have a good time.

    it is a sad day for the country if SUCH a programme with these many faults and failures to be encouraged and loved by the nation's youth, as if other alternatives couldnt achieve what the NS purportedly aims to achieve with less problems. whatever education and traits one should have, it should be obtained from home, since young, not the NS.

    welcome to the nazi party.


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