Forget military service, promote community service

Sri Lanka is a nation that is woefully lacking in discipline, public order, rule of law, leadership, innovation, team work, civic consciousness, and above all, common decency. A proposal to enforce a four-month military training on youth at the age of 18 years to instil good qualities is likely to be presented to Parliament soon.

The idea that our people need a higher sense of discipline is an attractive one. But is military training the best option? Can the country afford to pay for this expense? In this backdrop, we examine whether a system of national service or community service would best suit the country’s requirements and generate an immediate and better return on investment (ROI) – socially and financially.


Sri Lanka’s problem

Sri Lanka has become a nation where money and power can buy a lot. But we see all too clearly today that you can’t buy values, sacrifice, honesty, integrity, or patriotism. On the contrary, money and power have led to complete self-centeredness, lack of thoughtfulness, and lack of public commitment to the country, community, and even one’s family.


A human resources and training problem

Blue-chip companies have comprehensive induction programmes in order to instil their company vision, mission, goals, and values into their staff. This is what Sri Lanka as a country also needs to do.

But tempting as it is to hand over this problem to the military to knock the youngsters into shape, we must closely consider whether a more constructive and result-oriented approach would be more suitable.


What exactly do we want to teach them?

It’s easy to say that “the youth need to be taught discipline”. But what exactly do we mean by that in practical terms? “Discipline” is a broad concept. It needs to be narrowed down. One can be highly disciplined in some aspects of one’s life, but be completely chaotic in others. A clear example is in driving, where the most accomplished professionals in society are often guilty of driving recklessly and endangering the lives of the public. They need to be taught proper driving, not an abstract concept of discipline.

Thus, we need to be very clear and specific as to what particular practices a mass training programme must include. In other words, teaching people to march smartly together isn’t going to make our roads safer – it would be better to send all the youth for a couple of months of proper driver training instead!

Another example is the art of negotiation. Sri Lankans mainly try to solve issues by shouting and threatening, even for something as trivial as a fender-bender. We also kill each other for supporting a political party we don’t support. Teaching the art of respecting other people’s opinions, resolving issues amicably, or agreeing to disagree would be a practical approach.


Can we afford to have 400,000 unproductive youth? 

Over 400,000 young men and women come out of the country’s schools each year and join the workforce. In a country already plagued by low productivity, sending 400,000 of the most energetic members of the population out of the workforce for four months will most certainly have an adverse effect on the economy.

At a time when the economy is being wrecked by Covid-19 and the country has massive debt repayments coming up this year, when every sector of the economy is suffering, government revenue cannot be expected to flourish. To burden the state coffers with the tens of billions of rupees required for the cost of housing, feeding, and training over 400,000 young men and women for several months, is not financially practical.

It would therefore be far more cost effective if such training could be carried out locally and on a part-time basis, perhaps on weekends, by which participants could be gainfully employed in work or studies while in the programme and the State would not have to bear so much cost.


Put them to work

In this economic reality, it would be more prudent to consider methodologies that would be more productive for the nation’s economy and for society, even during the four-month training period. Simply speaking, don’t have 400,000 youth marching up and down like toy soldiers. Instead, put them to work and teach them values through that work.

Examples would be putting them to work in beach clean-ups; tree planting; road hedge trimming; tourist site clean-ups; working in hospitals, elderly homes, and orphanages, etc. which would provide tangible benefits, for example, environmental conservation; and building roofs, toilets, etc. Do this for four months and the majority of them would for the rest of their lives keep the environment clean and stop littering the country with plastic bottles, respect nature, care for the elderly, and much more.


The spirit of shramadana – community service

Shramadana is a long-running tradition in Sri Lankan villages, where a community project is decided upon and the work is carried out by volunteers from the community. It may be building a home for a homeless person, digging a drain in an area prone to flooding, digging a well, painting and repairing the village school or place of worship, or any such project. These projects may last a few hours or several weeks, but what they undoubtedly do is instil a spirit of community service, togetherness, discipline, teamwork, and much more among participants. Planning, leadership, logistics…The list of skills that can be taught by a simple shramadana is indeed long.


Get rid of the ‘paper qualification society’

In Sri Lanka today, far too many young people collect a string of paper qualifications that make them look impressive. Yet, they lack the values that are necessary to be productive members and leaders of companies, communities, state institutions, industries, and the country. Paper skills are never adequate, so success depends on the physical qualities, personality, and ability to work hard and as a team with others. The paper qualification does not specify who you are. It is not a matter of education but it’s a social problem as a measure of the success of individuals. A prime example are our graduates, who seem impressive on paper, but many simply lack the proper values to perform in responsible roles or indeed in society.


Global context

Countries that can afford to pay for months of military service may do so. But what they require their youth to learn differs significantly depending on the needs of the country. Many often focus on teaching social, vocational, and value-based skills. Countries have military service due to hostile neighbours, including North Korea and Israel, as they require a reserve of soldiers to defend the country. Switzerland did so due to being surrounded by many countries, and continues to do so due to its long tradition.


Recent reintroduction of military/national service in France

When President Emmanuel Macron declared France’s return of military service in 2018, he argued that this would foster patriotism and social cohesion. France had had military service for decades but had done away with it. It was reintroduced and then transformed into a mandatory civic duty, which would encourage young people to learn about first aid, self-defence, and republican principles, through military input, but without dealing with arms.

Initial trials were launched with teenagers from diverse backgrounds joining for two weeks, including boarding schools, holiday villages, and university campuses, to engage in social discussions, practise the reading of maps and first aid, learn about equality between men and women, and learn how to recognise fake news, before a final two weeks of charity volunteering.


Enhances national unity

Too many children today grow up without proper parental guidance or role models and often become rebellious and reckless. National service would give them an identity and sense of self-worth. It would also teach them both technical and social skills. This would enable them to grow an overwhelming sense of responsibility for society. It should be used to monitor youth to spot criminal activity and reduce crime. 


Is it ideologically reasonable?

On the other hand, some may argue that compulsory national service is in a way ideologically unreasonable, since it violates a fundamental right of liberal democracy inherently: Freedom of action. A government would say that it can approve the conscription or other coercive actions for national unity or national security. But if it were a voluntary national service, it would be up to each person to decide whether they are willing to join. In such a situation, the government and private sector could provide favourable career opportunities to those who do national service.


Practical, vocational, and life skills

Parents want their kids to develop their careers. In high socioeconomic developed communities, this is even more apparent. Responsibility, leadership, and teamwork are just some of the features infused into every person by engaging in national service. The training should typically include law enforcement, logistics, management consulting, training, nursing, and IT which helps for civil life.


Build your community

Volunteering can give your faith, self-esteem, and life satisfaction a healthy boost, and generally make you feel happy. Assisting with the smallest tasks in the lives of others, working with community service non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and caring for animals provides immense satisfaction. Volunteering is also a two-way street. Community services give them the opportunity to experience a new profession without a long-term commitment.
The volunteer time helps participants make new friends, extend their network, enhances their relationship with the community, connects them to people with similar interests, and increases their interpersonal skills. A further significant advantage of community service is reducing the risk of depression in the younger generation. Social isolation is a significant risk factor for depression. For instance, those who act or work with pets or animals have decreased levels of stress and anxiety.


National service ROI

National service results in a vast range of benefits, although many of these cannot easily be quantified. Besides offering recipients and communities direct added value, national service helps young people build skills and reconnects them with their communities, especially vital following the great recession in a pandemic that has weakened social links between young people. It gives retirees the potential for an encore career, their personal fulfilment, and increased financial stability for many. Lower crime rates are also correlated with national service. Such gains can be measured by considering livelihood revenues and the cost of crime and building a healthy community. The programmes on conservation or crime reduction will lead to higher property values and promote infrastructure investment in the cities. Mentoring services will inspire individuals to learn more and invest in education and in their communities.


Monitoring of results

Several years ago, a programme was carried out to provide training by the military to university freshers. The objective was to instil discipline to reduce ragging. One batch completed the training. But was any research carried out to ascertain if the level of ragging in that batch was reduced in comparison to other batches? Also, what was the financial cost of the programme?

There should be a scientific assessment carried out continuously to monitor tangible benefits, intangible benefits, direct and indirect cost benefits, etc. There must also be transparency of results.

The way forward

  • Set up a National Human Resource Values Training Committee that could plan out the types of values that the nation requires from its youth and from its greater population
  • Set up a second unit comprising human resource professionals who would decide upon the specific methodologies that would be utilised to instil the identified values
  • Appoint an economic committee that would come up with projects that would utilise the manpower of those under training, for the benefit of the country, especially in the areas of infrastructure development and economic development. This would ensure immediate ROI
  • Identify professionals who are experienced and qualified to teach the identified skills and place them on a recognised panel, e.g. driving, team work
  • Appoint localised committees at the town and village levels to come up with lists of shramadana projects for the short term, mid term, and long term, in order to provide tangible benefits to the community from the entire programme
  • Set up a research unit to monitor the results achieved, i.e. tangible benefits to the community and country, and the skills imparted to the participants


©️ Dias and Eliatamby

(The writers are Managing Partners of, a consultancy that finds practical solutions for challenges facing society, the environment, and all types of industries. Dr. Dias is a digital architect and educationist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia []. Eliatamby is an author, marketer, and educationist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka [])