With “job choosiness”, “lack of training”, and “poor working ethics” identified as possible causes to high unemployment in the country, making Brunei’s National Service Program (PKBN) compulsory may have to be considered.
PKBN is a voluntary basic military training offered to people aged 16 to 21 years old for a three-months period held in the $26 million camp at Kampung Batu Apoi, Temburong.
Since its inception in 2011, the programme is aimed at promoting the spirit of patriotism, commitment, and resilience among participants, in addition to strengthening participants’ understanding of the constitution and the national philosophy of MIB.
Several people I have talked to laud the PKBN graduates as being disciplined and committed in their work. A lot of employees also find PKBN graduates to be reliable and competent workers.
It is hardly surprising because their characters have been forged in the PKBN training grounds. Having to wake up at 4.30am every day and being made to train under the scorching heat has made them more mentally and physically robust.
They have to undergo physical training, join sports events and field trips, take entrepreneurship and MIB classes, and learn martial arts and body combat. They will also learn how to fire a rifle.
Most importantly, they can learn how to handle stress. Failure to manage stress can result in people having angry outburst, constant worrying, hiding from responsibilities, and carelessness (US Army Survival Manual, 1970). Military training helps them in this regard.
PKBN graduates’ job effectiveness also echoes the study reported by Financial Times reporter Elisabeth Braw in 2017, in which military training “cultivates new skills (human capital), new social networks (social capital), and new social norms and codes of behaviour (cultural capital)”.
Military training also imbues in participants general skills that are useful in any sector, such as adaptation, managing, and social skills. That means that companies can save costs from training them. After all, most jobs or skills are easily learnable, it is just a matter of having that right attitude, discipline, and resilience to do the job.
Most importantly, the training has also instilled in them the need to obey and respect authority. Indeed, those who excel in leadership have always followed the Athenian military dictum, “To lead, first, learn to obey”. The ability to follow orders has made it easy for employers to work with PKBN graduates. This means PKBN graduates will be less likely to be passive or shrink from their given work when ordered.
Having been exposed to vigorous physical exercise in their military training, they are also less likely to ignore their physical well-being later on. For one, they will get used to doing push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and more. We have to consider that one in two children from age five in Brunei are overweight (Global Nutrition Report, 2016).
There are some modifications could be considered for PKBN in the process. One suggestion is to engineer better nutrition for participants to boost their physical growth. This means serving daily food and drinks that contain high levels of macro and micronutrients, such as protein, calcium (milk), iron, zinc, Omega 3, vitamins C and A.
Youths nowadays prefer to overconsume sugar and fast-food. A former health minister shared to me once how Bruneian youths drink an equivalent of 1.5 cans of sugary drinks per day. The lack of vital nutrients could lead to stunted growth and other irreversible cognitive ramifications. PKBN can help reverse the trend through its daily nutritious offerings.
Another change is to give the youths an allowance whilst they are training. The allowance can start from $300 per month for the three-months programme (In Singapore, the lowest-ranked NS officer receives $560 per month). The money can be useful for them to help jumpstart their job search or to make up for the time they are in the programme. The payment can also serve as an incentive to attract thousands of Bruneians currently unemployed to enlist in PKBN too.
It would bode well for Brunei to learn the experiences of its partners, such as Singapore, the UK, the USA, and South Korea. The government can cut costs in R&D this way, and thus enable Brunei to truly enhance the programme.
We also have an increasing number of retirees from the Brunei military who can be employed to run PKBN. It would be a waste if Brunei’s elderly skilled generation would not be utilized to train our younger generation.
Several rules when it comes to the PKBN programme is to exclude people with a criminal history or history of using drugs, incapability, medical problems, and low motivation to serve.
PKBN may need to exclude youths from highly disadvantaged backgrounds. Hjalmarsson and Lindquist (2019) found that military service results in an increased likelihood of crime and the number of crimes committed by young men aged 23-30 from disadvantaged backgrounds. In contrast, military training has a positive effect on those from advantaged backgrounds.
Then there is the need to be wary of participants in introducing smoking culture to the group. These bad apples can spread their life-destroying habits to the rest of the bunch. They have to be disciplined, fined, or kicked out of the programme if caught.
Obviously, National Service is just one dimension to fix the unemployment issue. The debate rages on. Perhaps the next topic people can touch on include introducing a living wage and improving the labour standards.
Overall, Brunei should consider making PKBN compulsory. Done right, it can enhance young people’s ability to “deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve their mental balance in unfamiliar situations”. These are life skills one needs to prepare themselves, as advised by Yuval Noah Harari in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”.
These are also skills that the people of Brunei needs in the lead up to Brunei’s Post-Oil Era by 2050.
Here are several videos on the National Service: