Analyzing the NUS Fiasco

The fiasco surrounding the National University of Singapore (NUS) orientation camps has cast a harsh spotlight on how local universities welcome fresh undergraduates into their new school lives. There are some who feel the decision by NUS to shut down orientation week was too heavy-handed, letting the hard work put in by the various student bodies organizing the activities go to waste due to the actions of a few black sheep. Others feel the activities were endemic to orientation camps as a whole, and view the shutdown as an appropriate, if late, corrective action aimed at damage control and preserving the already-smeared reputation of the prestigious university.

What’s done is done – but perhaps we Singaporeans can reflect upon the issues at the heart of the matter so that they can be resolved, instead of bickering over the acceptability of the orientation traditions.

First, let’s examine the reason for orientation camps in the first place. Why do university freshmen opt to go for orientation?

As the name itself suggests, freshmen attend such camps to get a primer of their school life for the next few years on campus. This involves not only knowing one’s way around the various buildings and facilities at the university, but also forging meaningful and lasting friendships with their fellow students.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: What does it take for meaningful and lasting friendships to be made?

One tried and tested method to get a group to bond with each other is to make them undergo a common experience. The experience should last a significant amount of time to leave a lasting impression, and should also involve the overcoming of challenges which would make the experience a memorable one.

Some of you may already know what I’m getting at. Singaporean men who are serving or have served their National Service stint will remember how they bonded with their mates by suffering and overcoming trials together, turning a band of strangers into a tight crew able to function effectively as a fighting unit. Working professionals will understand the value of team-building activities and how working together as a group fostered a cohesive spirit that lingered long after the activity was over.

Likewise, the orientation camp is no different. Those who have attended such camps will recognize that activities like Fright Night, Initiation and Amazing Races all present significant challenges that the orientation group must overcome together. In doing so, it is hoped that the experience will bring everyone closer, providing ample sparks to kindle lasting friendships.

It is important to remember that the camp organizers plan their camps with this goal in mind. To deride them as a fraternity which seeks to sexually exploit girls using social pressure and the fear of being ostracized is to attack the symptom and miss an opportunity to address the root cause of the problem.

That being said, it is a fact that there are undergraduates who have spoken out about feeling uncomfortable at participating in such activities. The mainstay argument of those who are defending such camp traditions are that people who are uncomfortable with such activities should just speak up and voice out their discomfort. These defenders maintain that no one was forced to do anything they didn’t want to do in these camps.

On the other side of the fence, some are saying that it is simply not so easy to speak up during such camps, as the social pressure to go through with them is great. Combined with a fear of being ostracized, this is often enough to silence their objections, making them unwilling participants in these activities. It is no surprise that such an experience mars the beginning of what should be a happy school life.

It is at this point where everyone with an opinion will throw their two cents worth into the pot. Some question what the big fuss is about, while others are aghast at the apparent lack of morals on display with the carrying out of such activities. To wade into this morass of subjective moral principles is to talk in circles – there will be no useful conclusion that will satisfy everyone and solve the problem at the same time. Therefore, we should steer clear of this minefield and consider not whether the activities are morally wrong, but rather this: Do the activities which are causing such a controversy in our local media fulfill the overall purpose of the orientation camps in which they are carried out?

Let me rephrase for clarity’s sake: Are these activities necessary to bring freshmen together and forge lasting friendships with one another?

The simplest answer would be no. To argue otherwise would be to ignore that fact that not everyone is comfortable with such activities.

For those who would say that people who are not comfortable with such activities should simply not participate or attend such camps, remember the ultimate reason for such camps in the first place: To forge lasting friendships. Should that not include everyone, regardless of whatever walk of life they come from? Should we only seek to forge friendships with those who share near-identical values and personalities?

We must ask ourselves if such a xenophobic approach is one that can be realistically applied in real life. Singapore is a cosmopolitan city, with people of many races and tongues. The same goes for moral principles and values as well. What kind of example are we setting for each other if we actively work towards creating exclusive and intolerant closed environments?

I think there is no need for me to explain how orientation camp programs can fulfill their intended purpose without stepping on anybody’s toes. There are countless activities freshmen can be made to do in groups in order to bring them closer together and forge lasting friendships, without insulting anyone’s modesty or moral principles in the process. That’s the first part of the solution: Have an inclusive orientation camp program that avoids alienating anyone.

As someone who has gone through an orientation camp myself, I can understand that the need to fit in and not be seen as a spoilsport can be very immense. After all, it is *the* orientation camp – a freshman’s best opportunity to make friends. To voice out discomfort is to outcast oneself and risk being ostracized, for possibly one’s entire university school life.

But it is not true that the orientation camp is the only way for freshmen to make friends. They only see it as such because that is the first university experience they have, and because the camp leaders are constantly trumping up the importance of being enthusiastic about the camp activities. This leads me to the second part of the solution: Portray the orientation camp not as the sole method for freshmen to make friends, but simply one of the methods. Make it known that the university has countless clubs catering to all sorts of interests. Some may not prefer to stay overnight on campus at all, preferring to get to know their fellow freshmen over meals and drinks rather than icebreakers and team games. Perhaps in time, there will be senior students who will assist to organize such gatherings for freshmen. These alternatives will lessen the pressure a freshman might feel to go through with something he or she is not comfortable with.

The last and final part of the solution has to do with us as Singaporeans. The freshmen who attend our universities today will be tomorrow’s captains of industry and business leaders. For them to assume such roles, they must possess sufficient levels of self-confidence and belief in their own principles. This means being able to speak out for themselves if they do not want to go with the flow. This fiasco over the orientation camp activities may not have occurred if the “victims” did not give in to their fear of being ostracized, and valued fitting in over and above keeping in line with their own moral principles. While it is not possible to improve each and every freshman’s confidence in such matters, orientation camp leaders should not exert undue influence to pressure freshmen to participate in activities they are uncomfortable with. Rather, freshmen should be encouraged to speak out and voice their opinions with the security that their opinions will be accepted and respected.

Our universities should be forging people who are unafraid to stand by their own beliefs, yet respectful of others whose beliefs are different. Having senior students with such a mentality organizing and holding an orientation camp would definitely go a long way to creating a positive environment of mutual respect and harmony. Therefore, let us strive to inculcate in ourselves the importance of being inclusive and open-minded. Perhaps then, we would not need to drag the reputation of one of Singapore’s best universities, and that of Singapore itself through the mud anymore.

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