KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 — Back in 2003, entrepreneur Mohd Rawi Mohd Arof said he was elated to sign up with Putrajaya as one of the 25 National Service Training Programme (PLKN) camp operators. This, he said, was a chance for him to give back to the community.

The small-time defence sector vendor said the process was tedious. To be accepted as a PLKN training ground, there were several conditions that a campsite needed to fulfil.

“I found out about the government looking for national service campsites by chance when I was at the Defence Ministry for some work matters. After making enquiries, my partner — a former Army captain — and I decided we wanted to give it a go as national service camp operators,” he related to Malay Mail.

“It was just something that we wanted to do that we could feel good about — contributing back to the country. To me, it was a dream come true. You could proudly tell people, I am part of this programme that helps shape the future generation.

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“Who wouldn’t want to do it right?” he asked.

The two decades since then have not been kind to Mohd Rawi and other operators.

“We made it into the list of camps that were rolled out for the [first batch] of the national service programme in 2004, but we never thought we’d be where we ended up today: saddled with debt, with most of our campsites gone to waste,” said Mohd Rawi, who is now leading the lobby group called Former National Service Camp Operators Association.

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Known in Malay as the Program Latihan Khidmat Negara, the programme was initiated by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government in 2003 — between the end of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's first term as prime minister, and the start of his successor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

In December 2003, a total of 85,000 youths aged 18 were drafted for it, selected randomly from around 450,000 of those who were born in 1986.

Association of Former NS Camp Operators (PKBPPKN) president,Mohd Rawi Mohd Arof said some former NS camp operators now have debts amounting to millions of ringgit May 3, 2024. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Association of Former NS Camp Operators (PKBPPKN) president,Mohd Rawi Mohd Arof said some former NS camp operators now have debts amounting to millions of ringgit May 3, 2024. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Mohd Rawi said the programme initially started well but then went downhill. He said the gradual deterioration started with the ever-changing criteria for building.

He said among others, this included a requirement for campsites to be turned into permanent buildings instead, which posed financial difficulties for the operators. Following negotiations, this was changed to allow semi-permanent structures that must last for 10 years.

Even from the start, he said a campsite must be 50 acres, be equipped with kayaking facilities, be near a mosque, church, Chinese and Indian temple, and also an army or police camp, and possess an electrical generator set.

He said, however, the guidelines were changed again in 2008 and 2013.

“Things became messy because the entire time the amendments took place there were no fixed specifications, all the government said was that the premise must fit the number of participants stated.

“Because of this, many camp operators didn’t do anything in 2013 to change the structure of their buildings, and the programme carried on until the halt in 2015,” he said.

A general view of PLKN Kuala Kubu Baru May 2, 2024. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
A general view of PLKN Kuala Kubu Baru May 2, 2024. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Camps gone downhill since 2015 suspension

In 2015, then-prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak suspended the PLKN following a drop in government revenue triggered by plunging global oil prices. He said the move would help save the government RM500 million.

The programme would be revived as PLKN 2.0 in 2016 with a revamped curriculum including skills development programmes to help boost employment, and also issue vocational training certificates.

Mohd Rawi said during the hiatus, camp operators received token government aid of RM70,000 per month to cover rental. However, that was not enough to cover monthly costs since the camps would also had to account for government officers stationed there.

When PLKN 2.0 returned, the operators faced a worse predicament. They were previously paid a certain amount per head of participant, but the revamped programme was no longer compulsory.

“It was then the number of participants reduced tremendously. One campsite had the capacity for 400 participants, but only 80 to 100 were sent during the PLKN 2.0.

“So that’s when the rental era started, whereby the government paid us rent for the campsites, otherwise, there was no way we could survive,” Mohd Rawi said, adding that the amount differs and started at RM100,000 per month.

The buildings at the former Bukit Desa Rimba National Service camp in Sauk, Kuala Kangsar were left to ruin and abandoned after the programme was halted back in 2018. Picture taken on May 2, 2024. — Picture by Farhan Najib
The buildings at the former Bukit Desa Rimba National Service camp in Sauk, Kuala Kangsar were left to ruin and abandoned after the programme was halted back in 2018. Picture taken on May 2, 2024. — Picture by Farhan Najib

With operators now struggling to upgrade their sites to meet the amended specifications, Mohd Rawi said more operators plunged into debt to keep their campsites afloat.

“This time they won’t allow any more room for those who didn’t follow, if you don’t follow, out you go.

“This was when everyone started to borrow more money as it cost millions to upgrade the camps,” he said.

The operators initially managed to secure loans with SME Bank Bhd after the government agreed to extend their contracts between 2018 and 2020. However, it was then that the PLKN was scrapped altogether with 27 months left in the contract.

In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan Cabinet announced the abolishment of the National Civics Bureau (BTN) and the discontinuation of the PLKN.

The nascent government had then been under pressure to terminate the BTN due to prevailing suspicions that the agency was effectively a propaganda arm set up by the previous BN administration.

“We were terminated with a 30-day notice as stated in the contract ... They didn’t call us, they didn’t have any discussion with us, it was as if they didn’t care at all what would happen to us.

“In 30 days, how were we to find money to pay off the workers, along with their EPF, Socso and not to mention income taxes? That’s when we all landed ourselves in a lot of debt,” he said.

Last resort for compensation

In February this year, 28 out of the 57 camp operators filed a suit against the Malaysian Government alleging a breach of the contract. The first case management took place in March.

“We are not demanding compensation, but pleading for the government to at least be merciful and pay us what they owe us — the remaining months of rental fees that were part of the four-year contract we signed in 2018.

“We could have filed a suit [in 2018], but we always felt that there was a misunderstanding and we were hopeful to solve this without going through legal action. We decided in January 2019 that we didn’t want to sue the government, we wanted to plead with the government, just pay us what we deserve [remaining rental],” he said.

Mohd Rawi said his group had in the past years managed to escalate its grievance with prime ministers from Dr Mahathir to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

However, he has expressed frustration that it was not consulted when the government announced the return of the programme as PLKN 3.0.

“The scenario is like this: the government promised to rent a house from us, they asked us to furnish it with air-conditioning, add two rooms, what kind of bed, colour scheme, and then suddenly they tell us that they don’t want to rent from us anymore. We did everything.

“And now, they are saying that they want to revive the programme and call it PLKN 3.0, but they didn’t even call us to ask for our experiences,” he said.

He said the 28 operators decided to take the matter to court after the Ministry of Finance refused its proposal for compensation in March 2023.

The decision was taken as their time was running out, he said. Under their contract, they had only six years to take legal action if there was a breach of contract.

Wong Ha Ha, 72, one of the five co-land owners of the former Bukit Desa Rimba National Service camp in Sauk, Kuala Kangsar, shows the plan of the former camp site at his house in Sauk May 2, 2024. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Wong Ha Ha, 72, one of the five co-land owners of the former Bukit Desa Rimba National Service camp in Sauk, Kuala Kangsar, shows the plan of the former camp site at his house in Sauk May 2, 2024. — Picture by Farhan Najib

According to Mohd Rawi, those who joined in the suit were only those who still had the financial means to do so. The others are either bankrupt or dead.

“We just feel that we’re unfairly treated, when the government responded to our claim, they cited Clause 36 of the contract, whereby the government can terminate the contract without paying compensation, on the basis of national interest.

“But they forgot that we did this also for the national interest. Now suddenly they want to initiate PLKN 3.0, saying that it’s out of national interest too. So my question is, which is which now?” he asked.

In their statement of claim, the operators said they suffered losses of rental fees for 27 months between October 2018 and December 2020, amounting to RM108.737 million.

They are now seeking a court declaration for Clause 36 of the main contract to be declared void, the loss of payment reimbursed, and wasted expenditure and damages to be assessed by the court.

Earlier this month, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin reportedly said that any compensation for the operators would depend on the contract.

His predecessor Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan said in October last year that PLKN 3.0 would be conducted in three phases rather than the old template, saying RM8 billion had been used to train around 900,000 students in 16 months back in its first version.

Mohamad said a reviewing committee also found that the first version was treated more like a summer camp and failed to achieve its goals.

A survey earlier this year found that over two in three respondents agreed with reviving the PLKN, with 74 per cent agreeing that the programme would have a positive effect on society.


This is Part 1 of Malay Mail’s feature on the fate of former National Service Training Programme (PLKN) campsites. Read Part 2 here: Abandoned, turned to detention centres and army camps: A look at former National Service sites ahead of revival