NUS Orientation, good or bad?

Update 3 (6th Aug 2:09pm): Flag raised $472,473.45 this year, around $20k more than last year! Didn’t dare to get my hopes up when I saw how many of my friends were posting on Facebook about going out of their way to donate to the flaggers  looks like adversity really does bring people closer together! I’m so, so glad I was wrong about Flag and its beneficiaries suffering from this suspension :D

Update 2 (3rd Aug 10:27am): Looks like some of the non-camp orientation activities to be held  in the month of August will likely be resuming. Thank you OSA! Student leaders, don’t waste this opportunity to build the relationship back up (:

Update 1 (31st Jul 11:15pm): I got a chance to speak to Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), about this in person just now. Let’s see what happens next.


So recently, there was another huge hooha about how the orientation games in NUS are becoming increasingly sexualised. That article, followed by the one about the “strong disciplinary action” NUS will be taking, prompted me to post some of my thoughts on Facebook (scroll down for just the text alone):

My original post on Facebook
My original post on Facebook.

“My dear friends who are helping out in camps, this is one of the reasons why OSA has been getting stricter and stricter over the years. Things like this tear down the trust and relationship, which your seniors spend years building up, in an instance.

I’ve always been against all the “dirty” cheers and don’t really encourage forfeits. If you’re honest with yourself, can you tell me that these activities aren’t mostly just for the entertainment of the seniors? But guess what, you don’t have to ridicule or embarrass somebody to have fun. People have disagreed with me (God knows how hard it was as UC house head, and I’m pretty sure there’ll be some who are unhappy about this post), but if you’re firm about it, you *can* make a difference – I’ve had so many freshies and even seniors thank me for standing up for them.

The change starts with you, whether you’re camp comm, OGL, or even just crashing. Will you take it up?”

Since then, I’ve gotten a number of people asking me for more of my thoughts on this matter. Then this morning when I woke up, I heard that NUS would be suspending all orientation activities. And I cannot stay silent about that, because it is something which I care deeply about.

But first, why should you care about my perspective?

The same reason why I’ve been asked about this. Because I’m a hardcore camper and have been in just about all the roles there are in a camp (freshie, fake freshie, crasher, helper/facilitator, OGL, house head, camp comm, and even part of the committee green-lighting the camp).

Because in terms of NUS orientation camps alone, I’ve attended more than most people ever will (17, if you’re curious, not counting those which I only went for a day or 2).

Because I’ve worked with the NUS staff for years, have built up relationships with them, and I understand where they are coming from.

Because I’ve been the one dealing with the faculty advisors/OSA/members of the public when things go wrong, even after I stepped down from all leadership positions.

So yes, here are my views. Feel free to disagree with them.

I’m against all these sexual activities

Call me a prude, old fashioned, spoilsport, whatever you like, but these go against what I believe in and morally, I feel they’re not right. Some people may enjoy them, good for you, but I don’t, and there are a lot more people who share my views than most people think.

These rarely happen in non-orientation camps

I’ve noticed that in non-orientation camps where the participants aren’t all freshies, the worst that happens tends to just be inappropriate questions during HTHT (heart-to-heart talk), and the response is always voluntary. Which is why my original Facebook post had that line, “If you’re honest with yourself, can you tell me that these activities aren’t mostly just for the entertainment of the seniors?”

There is something in us humans which likes to have fun at the expense of others – I myself am guilty of this. Learn to be aware of your subconscious mind, and you might find yourself thinking, what better targets than the fresh faced students who don’t know any better?

A few black sheep doesn’t mean all NUS orientation camps are bad

“NUS orientation camp games increasingly sexualised” is a massively overgeneralised headline. But well, TNP is known to sensationalise things to increase viewership, so take it with a pinch of salt. I would like to point out that such activities do not happen in every camp. In fact, over the years, I feel that as a whole, the activities in camps are getting more sensible.

I’m going to use Computing as the model example here. A lot of people will say Computing camps are so mild because all the geeks are there, but you can’t be further from the truth. Computing works because the students, staff and faculty have mutual understanding, respect, and trust for each other. The school (collective term for staff and faculty) truly cares about their students, and are often willing to go the extra mile for them (e.g. regularly staying past midnight to help the students). In return, the students listen, really listen, and try their best to avoid doing things which will disappoint the school or affect its public image. When the students make a mistake, they take responsibility for it and apologise. The school disciplines them, but forgiveness is always given at the end of the day. It’s a two way relationship.

Orientation made a difference in my life

My life would have been very, very different if not for the camps I joined as a freshie. I would not have met so many amazing people, students, staff and non-NUS folks alike. I would not have been asked to step up as a student leader. I would not have had the opportunity to build up such a huge network. I would not have overcame my fear of public speaking to the point where I can comfortably address crowds of over a hundred people. I would not have gotten multiple job offers even before I graduated, without having applied for a single one of them. And I definitely would not feel that my time in NUS was the best period of my life. For all this and more, I am eternally grateful and want others to be able to benefit as much as I have.

My appeal to NUS

To say that I’m disappointed is an understatement. I know there’s a lot of pressure on NUS now, especially after international news agencies started following this fiasco. I know how NUS has a reputation to keep. I know a harsh punishment is necessary to show that you mean business. I’m sure NUS has weighed the options and gone through with this drastic action only because of how urgent the situation is.

But in my humble opinion, a blanket suspension of all orientation activities is not the right way to do it.

Here are the main reasons why:

  1. Freshmen are shortchanged
    Fun and games aside, O’Week is incredibly important for the freshies. It’s where they meet good friends who will support them through the next 4 years (and potentially longer). It’s where they meet classmates with whom they will work together for group projects. It’s where they meet seniors who will give them valuable advice for important things like how to bid for their modules.

    I’ve met many people who didn’t enjoy their time in NUS because they didn’t have a group of friends, or screwed up their first year just because they didn’t have anybody to turn to for help. This number is now going to get a lot higher and I’m genuinely concerned about that.

  2. Students on both sides will band together against you
    Look. Most students already don’t believe that you want to protect them and prevent them from making the same mistakes which their predecessors made. This is not helping. As the saying goes, nothing brings people together better than a common enemy. You just made yourself that enemy.

    Months and months of the students’ hard work and sleepless nights goes down the drain just like that. Did you know that most of these sexualised activities are not part of the camp programme, but just impromptu acts or forfeits and hence difficult to prevent? And some of them, like the ponding video which has been circulating, aren’t even part of a camp (and for ponding in particular, strangely enough, the “victims” tend not to really mind it). Can you blame the students for being furious and calling this a close minded/knee-jerk reaction, especially since this suspension includes non-camp events like Bash/Pageant as well?

    The general sentiment on the ground now is, aside from all that hate, to be more careful when taking part in “illegal activities” instead of playing by the rules more. That’s the last thing you want, because you can’t ban orientation activities forever. Some things, like water bomb fights and dunking during beach days, will happen regardless of whether you ban them or not. I would much rather the campers be briefed on how to do it safely, than have the students do it behind your backs without any thoughts given to safety. That’s how accidents happen.

  3. Flag and its beneficiaries will suffer, badly
    Traditionally, freshies take part in Flag because it’s during (or immediately after) O’Week and their entire OG is going for it. That’s the reason why most flaggers are freshies, and not because NUS brands Flag as part of their orientation activities. The sad truth is that many students already see Flag as a boring, unnecessary waste of time which they couldn’t care less about. Remove O’Week and you remove the motivation to attend Flag. Who suffers the most from this in the end? Our beneficiaries.

I know that allowing the ongoing camps during the initial outbreak continue, instead of just shutting them down, was only possible because of the staff who sacrificed their time to be present throughout the remainder of those camps. Thank you for that. I truly believe that after all has been said, NUS does have their students’ best interests at heart. But this needs to be better communicated to the student leaders, because it’s coming across as distrust and widening the already huge divide between the school and the students. Every single student I know, myself included, who has worked with OSA has said “OSA sucks” and been incredibly frustrated at one point (though all the time is a lot more common).

How I would have handled this would be to try, as much as possible, to get your staff down to monitor it. I would have sought the help of each faculty/hall’s staff (I know a lot of them are willing to help) or even students you trust for manpower. I would let the camps continue if the camp comm agreed to change it to just day camps instead of overnight events and not hold any activities outside of NUS. Just for that 1 week before school starts. That would have been better than no camp at all, but unfortunately, it’s too late to do any of that now if you want to be taken seriously.

So what do I suggest now? Let the academic related portions of the camp, such as module bidding, and non-camp events, like Bash, continue. There aren’t going to be many games or cheers or forfeits or ways to get into trouble at those orientation events anyway.

After that, once there’s some breathing room to figure out how best to solve this whole mess, talk to the students. There are too many misunderstandings going around, and a top down approach will not be effective. Have focus groups to understand how the students really feel. Get on social media and read all the comments. Identify the student influencers (a lot of them don’t have official leadership positions), and work with them, in addition to the student leaders, to affect change. Treat the student leaders like you truly believe they are the leaders of tomorrow, instead of potential troublemakers, because that’s how a lot of them feel now. It’s not going to be easy, and this is just the start.

My appeal to students

4 groups of students in particular whom I want to address.

Student leaders holding higher positions,

Now is the time to step up. While you may not be directly involved in a camp, as long as that camp comm is under you, you still have some amount of accountability. If your camp is one of the “clean” ones, fantastic! Talk to your staff advisors and reassure them. On the other hand, if it isn’t, take responsibility for it. A public apology wouldn’t hurt too (unless it’s defensive instead of sincere, because the mob can smell that a mile away and will attack).

For those who have already stepped up, I applaud you. Good leaders pass the credit and take the blame. Complaining about how unfair the situation will only aggravate things, especially since other students look up to you.

OGLs,

You guys are the ones who have the most impact on the freshies. You are the ones coming up with most of the cheers. You are the ones who test out the games during precamp. You are the ones who lead the nightly HTHT sessions. You are the ones deciding all the forfeits. As much as you like to have a good laugh, keep in mind that the camp is for the freshies. Will such activities help bond your freshies together, or make it awkward enough for them that they avoid the OG after the camp ends?

Again, you might find these activities fun, but try putting yourself in their shoes. Pay attention to the changes in your freshies’ expressions when a game is explained to them, because the sad truth is that most freshies won’t dare to speak up. If you notice anything amiss, especially among the quiet females, take the initiative and ask them (separately, if possible; you don’t want to announce it to the whole OG) if they’re OK with participating. Be careful that your  encouragement to play a game doesn’t turn into peer pressure.

I know how incredibly difficult and crazy my suggestions seem. Trust me, I struggled with that a lot too, given my overly enthusiastic and often oblivious nature. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Camp comm,

First of all, I know most of you do follow the proposal which has been sent to OSA and approved by them, so you must be very frustrated with all of this. But I also know that OSA doesn’t always manage to catch everything. As a rule of thumb, if you’re not comfortable with conducting an activity in front of an NUS staff or faculty, it probably shouldn’t be part of the programme.

Yes, some of these activities may have been part of the camp’s history for as long as anybody can remember. But who says you have to have them in your camp? Be original, come up with new, “clean” activities. You really don’t need sexualised activities to make a camp fun. Also, I know SDN is a major sponsor for many camps, but don’t try to push the blame to them. Games which encourage interaction between the genders are good, but know where to draw the line. Do you really think SDN will condone the type of activities which have made it to the news?

When a student does speak up about your activities, please please please try not to take offense immediately and just write that person off as a trouble maker. Hear them out. One of the hallmarks of a good camp comm is their willingness to receive feedback and act upon it.

And seriously, do not abuse the trust the school has put in you. As what one of my profs said, “we bear in mind that we are training future leaders and don’t want to be looking over their shoulders all the time. We want them to take responsibility and honor the proposals given.” That means successfully doing things the school wouldn’t approve of without them finding out is not OK.

Having to play by the rules has frustrated me to no end whenever I’ve some part in planning a camp, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve broken a few. But have you ever stopped and wondered why OSA seems so senselessly strict about certain things? Because somewhere, sometime, some senior (who’s probably not even from your hall/faculty/camp) was an idiot and got into serious trouble. The consequences of your actions will affect not just your camp, but other (non-camp) NUS events as well. OSA wants to prevent you from making that same mistake.

Freshies,

You guys aren’t exempted from the responsibility as well. Some of you are the ones suggesting questionable forfeits and cheers. Spare a thought for your fellow freshies. And I’m not pointing fingers here, but guys, please remember this isn’t NS.

For the rest of you, your seniors can’t help you if they don’t even know that you’re not OK with something. You need to help them help you by taking the first step and speaking up. That said, please be respectful when you bring up the matter. Your OGLs and camp comm are humans too, and nobody likes to hear that something they spent hours planning was badly received.

Also, do not abuse this and end up sitting out half the games. Keep in mind that somebody else wasn’t accepted into the camp so you could join it – every camp has way more applicants than spaces. Try stepping out of your comfort zone (using your discretion, of course), and who knows, you might end up enjoying something you never thought you would.

Lastly, for everybody affiliated with a camp in some way,

If you enjoy these sexualised games, who am I to judge you? We all have our quirks. However, these activities don’t really have a place in orientation camps (or any other camps, for that matter) and may be taken the wrong way by other people. Are you willing to risk getting suspended, or worse, expelled, over a stupid orientation activity? 10 years from now, when you look back, will you be proud of your actions? If the answer is no, I beg you to give this a second thought and don’t do anything you’ll regret.

On the other side of things, if you’re uncomfortable with anything, don’t be afraid to speak up. Even as a thick skinned extrovert, I found it daunting at the start, and I can only guess how much scarier it might be for a normal person. But know that you’re not alone – I was pleasantly surprised and greatly encouraged by the number of freshies and even seniors who thanked me (mostly privately) for speaking up, and camp comm who said they didn’t realise certain activities were making people feel uncomfortable. There will always be a risk of being ostracised, but the more people who speak up, the less that risk is.

And above all, be respectful of each other, regardless of which point of view you may have. Don’t be so quick to judge and criticise the other side, because it takes two hands to clap. If you must air your thoughts, be constructive about it.

I meant it when I said the change starts with you.


From a crazy girl who stopped counting how many NUS camps she went for once the number hit 25.

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