On 22nd March 2020, Private Muhammad Faiz Harun was subject to a series of physical abuse and punishment by his compatriots. Unfortunately, he passed away three days later in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Sabah far away from his family in Sungai Petani, Kedah, leaving behind a widow and a 4-month old daughter. He was reported to be in a state of unconsciousness and vomiting due to the beatings and died 3 days after. Due to COVID-19, the issue did not receive the same widespread attention that shocked our country in 2017 – the death of Officer Cadet Zulfarhan Osman who was tortured and bullied in a military tertiary institution, National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM). Looking at this problem, one might ask why such cases are recurring from time to time?
The heart of the problem lies in the Armed Forces Act of 1972 itself. There is no legal distinction between bullying /ragging offences and corrective measures, which in turn creates a considerable vague area that also complicates rigorous assessment. Additionally, it is also a reflection of cultural imperatives, namely one that emphasises obedience through fear rather than loyalty through respect. This in turn undermines the purpose of training and prevents a formation of a healthy esprit de corps and patriotism.
To this end, it is important for Malaysia to more clearly define the legal boundaries of corrective measures and disciplinary action in order to clarify grey areas and provide clarity. In this, the article will describe the legal and administrative policies of different militaries on discipline, bullying, and hazing (ragging) offenses as a means of setting a standard. The bigger question of cultural awareness and acceptance however will require a more whole-of-society approach. It is important to understand that bullying and ragging is also commonplace in civilian spheres. In structures of seniority-based hierarchy, power imbalances are inherent and provide the opportunity and means to exert influence and control. The need for influence and respect through assertion of power over another is a primary motivation for most cases.
Much of these behaviors start from young. According to the Ministry of Education, there were more than 14,000 bullying cases from 2012 – 2015, with most of them involving physical bullying. The issue persists into tertiary education as can be seen in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in 2014, where seven freshmen were involved in a ragging incident in which they were forced by their seniors to strip and perform lewd acts on each other. It is then no surprise that such a culture is similarly reflected in the Armed Forces. Ultimately, we must remember that at one point, soldiers were also civilians.
What makes the issue less clear cut in the Armed Forces is the distinction between bullying / hazing and corrective discipline. Corrective measures are needed to correct deficient behavior among personnel, instill discipline, a sense of unity, and to condition a soldier’s mentality to follow any command instantaneously without hesitation. Ragging and hazing however is a means of exerting control and dominance. Where one is centered around learning outcomes and providing leadership, the other is a means of perpetuating personal desires for authority. The former is also carried out by the instructional cadre, usually senior enlisted or commissioned officers, whereas the latter is often carried out by cliques or cohorts that do not necessarily outrank the victims.
However, because both often involve varying degrees of physical punishment, the two are often conflated together. The most telling perhaps is that cases of ragging and hazing almost invariably lead to serious disabilities or injuries, and sometimes death. Corrective measures however must typically be carried out in a controlled manner, with the responsible officer or enlisted person being aware of the limits of physical tolerance. To the average civilian however, the two appear to be indistinguishable, often leading many to accept hazing and ragging as part of the military institution.
Historically, other countries have also faced a similar question. For instance, the United States Military Academy (West Point) received backlash regarding their ‘traditions’ and ‘initiations’ after the highly publicised hazing case of Cadet Oscar L. Booz came to light in 1900. The incident forced Congress to convene a select committee of the House of Representatives in January 1901, which then called for drastic changes.
Even the renowned General MacArthur was a victim during his cadet years but refused to name all his doers. It has then resulted in the institutional commitment to a culture of structural prevention from the grassroots – the Corps of Cadets. The commitment remains and continuous updates were made to curtail these practices and to achieve a first class organizational culture.
Owing to the case of Cadet Booz, the United States has then made a wider legal interpretation on what ‘hazing’ and bullying constitutes. According to the United States AR 600-20 Army Command Policy, hazing is defined as:
‘any conduct whereby one military member or employee, regardless of Service or rank, unnecessarily causes another military member or employee, regardless of Service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to an activity that is cruel, abusive, oppressive, or harmful.’United States AR 600-20 Army Command Policy
Hazing is done by a group of senior members to newer members of the organization, whereas bullying is targeted towards isolated members and perpetrators of bullying can act independently of other members and can be of higher or lower organizational position compared to targets. After initiation, hazing victims are welcomed into the group whereas victims of bullying are often subjected to continued exclusion.
while corrective punishment is interpreted as:
‘training that must be related to the offense, oriented to improve the substandard performance, can be after hours, and can only be implemented until the deficiency is corrected.’
Additionally, in the AR (US Army Regulation) 600-20 paragraph 4-20:
‘When authorized by the chain of command and when not unnecessarily cruel, abusive, oppressive or harmful, the following do not constitute hazing: administrative corrective measures including a reasonable number of repetitions of authorized physical exercises.’US Army Regulation
These interpretations provide reasonable clarity on the difference between the two. The rules and regulations for punishment were also updated to reflect the prevention culture in which punishments that were to be conducted have to be accountable by respective senior officers, acceptable and audited in an arrangement known as the Extra Military Instruction (EMI) form. In 2016, the Hazing Report to Congress highlighted an 11 percent increase for hazing complaints in the Armed Forces as a result of increases in hazing oversight. This enables the Department of Defense to keep abreast of the cases and suggest programs for each service to mitigate the issue.
Similarly, New Zealand’s lawmakers addressed this issue by focusing on training reform, specifically on accountability. It is reflected in Schedule 3 of New Zealand’s Armed Forces Discipline Act (1971) which explains a scale of authorised punishment that could only be taken by a ‘disciplinary officer’. This reduces the possibility of the abuse of power, and improves accountability by limiting potential mistreatment that could arise from the informal delegation and blurred punishment methods that may include extortion of money.
More stringent law and standards on acceptable discipline measures
So, it’s quite clear that having clearly defined standards for what constitutes acceptable and reasonable punishment, and what is merely degrading and excessive ragging, is important both for the sake of improving esprit de corps as well as limiting danger to life and limb of service personnel. Other countries which have done so have seen a visible decline in such cases over the years, and have seen general improvement in the well-being of their most junior recruits, cadets and young officers.
In Malaysia, this remains a major gap. There seems to be an absence of a written definition between bullying/hazing/ragging and corrective discipline in the Armed Forces Act of 1972. The Integrity Plan of the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) in 2015 was one attempt in providing a standard, and it outlines the focus on each service branch capability in integrity awareness and culture. However, beyond that, it appears there has been little legislative interest to fix this gap.
Eventually, some consideration must be made to amend the Act and create legislative and executive oversight to ensure greater accountability and control over proper corrective measures. MINDEF and MAF should openly communicate on policies regarding complaints and issues raised by personnel regarding abuse, sexual harassment, maladministration, ill-treatment and bullying. Accessible and independent channels for reporting are essential and encouraged. These complaints could then be taken into an independent complaint commission which could reduce the conflict of interest due to internal investigation.
This follows closely the experiences of the United Kingdom, which similarly suffers issues of underreporting cases of bullying and harassment in the armed forces. The hierarchical structure within the armed forces makes it likely that abuses will not be reported.
Hence, the UK government created the Service Complaints Ombudsman (SCOAF) as an independent body that is able to have investigative and prosecutorial power that is tied to the legislative branch. As the rakyat shares the commitment in defence issues through taxation from the federal government, they deserve to know audits regarding personnel who suffer from mistreatment, injuries or death during peacetime similar to the United Kingdom’s Service Complaints Ombudsman Annual Report which could then be debated in the Parliament.
In 2018, SCOAF reported that 88% of Officers and 66% of Other Ranks are at least aware to some extent how the Service Complaints Ombudsman can help them with a complaint about bullying, discrimination or harassment.
Grassroot advocacy to strengthen awareness
However, addressing society’s own pernicious views on the matter will require a more grassroots approach. To this, we look to Russia as an example. In the Russian Armed Forces, the practice of ‘Dedovshchina’ or ‘the rule of the grandfathers’ was documented by Human Rights Watch in 2004 as a serious human rights abuse often resulting in the deaths of dozens of conscripts every year, and serious—and often permanent—damage to the physical and mental health of thousands others. In 2006 alone, there were about 6,500 soldiers who became a victim of this practice.
This has resulted in a huge outcry from two pressure groups, Mother’s Rights and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. These civil society organisations (CSO) are set up by the parents of those recruits who had been injured or succumbed to their deaths during peacetime training and are aimed to protect the rule of law concerning how armed forces should look like in a democratic society. These movements led to a training reform in the Russian military back in 2008 by keeping recruits away from seniors’ members for a period of 6 months. In the first eight months of 2009, there were 13 percent fewer cases related to ‘dedovshchina’. Then Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov established a public council within the Ministry to give better public control and legal measures over intra-military relations.
This is perhaps an important example of how pressure from the grassroots level results in a positive change. Creating awareness, changing public opinion, and in turn gathering public support has always been an effective means of getting the government to act. In our case, such a pressure system has yet to materialize. Efforts should be made to offer pro-bono consulting and activist organization to parents and families to help carry these concerns.
Accountability and the role of Parliament
Both the United Kingdom and the United States have better oversight in military affairs either through parliament or Congress. The United States has a Senate Committee on Armed Services which is empowered with legislative oversight over the national security apparatus including military research and development, benefits for the armed forces and matters related to defence policy. Through this channel, the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services and the House of Representatives received recommendation reports by the Secretary of Defence regarding hazing reports, hearings and policies. This includes analysis and assessment of hazing data submitted by the Military Departments.
In Malaysia, a Parliamentary Select Committee on Defence and Home Affairs was established at Dewan Rakyat last year while the idea of creating a Senate Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee for the Dewan Negara has been mooted.
Given the complexity of the security sector, a well-developed committee structure is needed if the parliament is to exert real influence on the government. Effective parliaments have committees for each policy field of the government; the defence or the security sector is no exception. Committees are vital because they are able to scrutinise the government in detail and because they allow for direct communication between parliamentarians belonging to different political parties. Only through a reformed security sector then the work ethos of the military could be improved in preventing more deaths during peacetime training.
Given the tough nature of military training, we need to understand that MAF cannot hope to eliminate all forms of ill behaviour in a short period either. This also does not mean that MAF should reduce its tone during training. However, having a controlled training environment through a renewed legal and social culture could ensure that MAF can redeem its training competency in the eyes of the rakyat. Constant attentiveness over the training and creating an independent complaint structure for the MAF would be absolutely essential in this regard.
On social reform, there is a need to address the persistent belief in society that ragging and bullying is justified in military training. Such behaviors can be detrimental to both the Armed Forces and to the personnel and their families. Advocacy and organized civil society activities in this regard will help to address these misplaced conflations and in the long run create a better culture.
If these problems are not addressed properly over the long term, the reputation of the Armed Forces as a professional organization will suffer. It may come to a point where future youths and families may altogether advocate against any form of service in the military, which in turn might deprive the Armed Forces a pool of dynamic recruits and cadets. Ragging might make the soldiers tougher, but it would not make them better. The move towards an MAF with a healthier unit climate and esprit de corps will necessitate a careful retrospection of both legal and cultural practices. Difficult, but perhaps necessary so that no more young and innocent lives will be sacrificed during peacetime.