From strangers to brothers

ATTENDING a three- month mandatory National Service Training Programme (PLKN) was, for me, more than just meeting a requirement set by the government.

The minute I was informed that I had been selected to join the programme in 2008, I told myself I wanted to learn more than the target set by PLKN – to enhance patriotism among youths, as well as encourage national integration and racial unity.

This was because I thought I already possessed all the qualities that the programme wanted to bring out in its participants.

I studied at St John's Institution, a notable school located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and I was very active in the co-curricular field as I represented the school in rugby and its cadet corps marching band.

So, coming into PLKN, I always thought that I could complete the training with ease as I already had some military training experience and the physical ability to undergo the "arduous" three-month training.

Little did I know that things would be very different.

Before this, my only knowledge of East Malaysia was what I learnt in school.

I was sent for my PLKN at the San Shui Camp located in Tawau, Sabah, and I felt very alienated the minute I walked into my dormitory as most of the trainees in my camp were from East Malaysia.

I felt like we were from different countries – speaking different languages due to their slang and my "city-boy" culture was described as "manja" (pampered) by some of my comrades.

I found it hard to blend in with the people and I developed a dislike for them in the first few weeks of training.

But after being forced to sleep under one roof and marching to one order, I started to develop an understanding for my comrades.

That understanding grew in the weeks that followed. We started to share personal stories like how our parents brought us up and the "naughty things" we did in school.

As the training came to an end, we became close as brothers. We ate together, played together and also studied together.

I cannot forget two of my best friends at the camp, Christopher Angun, a Kadazan from Tawau, and Bharizi Kanneli, an Iban from Kapit, Sarawak.

While I believe I have always been tolerant of other races, these two pointed out to me that there is no limit to one's level of tolerance.

Christopher had no money in his wallet throughout the three months at the camp, but he could afford to bring a smile to others due to his bubbly attitude, while Bharizi knew just about everything on Malaysia's history.

They accepted me for who I was and this made our relationship stronger, and we still keep in touch even now.

The day before we graduated was one of the saddest days I have ever had.

I had to say goodbye to my brothers whom I used to call strangers.

Both Christopher and Bharizi hugged me and cried, saying they did not know if we would ever meet again.

The greatest gift PLKN bestowed on me was the exposure on interaction with different races in Malaysia.

Without the programme, I would never have known (and eventually bonded with) good people like Christopher and Bharizi.

I think PLKN is a positive platform for the younger generation, especially today, when they are clinging only to social media to connect and experience socialising with people from various backgrounds and cultures.

There is a lot to learn after you turn 17, and I believe the experience PLKN offers can contribute a lot in improving personal confidence and tolerance while helping Malaysia to prosper.