Freshmen Orientation Activities in Universities

Published Date: 16 August 2016 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

1. Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC)

2. Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC)

3. Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC)

4. Miss Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC)

Question

1. To ask the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) in light of increasing incidents of sexually offensive and 'sexualised' activities during orientation activities at the National University of Singapore over the last decade (a) what are the regulations in place to protect students in our tertiary institutions from physical abuse and harassment; (b) whether these regulations are standardised across our polytechnics and universities; (c) what checks and enforcement are in place to ensure that the regulations are adhered to; (d) how many students or staff have been found guilty and have had to face disciplinary action and how were they punished; and (e) whether any civil or criminal suits had been filed as a result.

2. To ask the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) (a) whether the Ministry has a code of conduct to prohibit sexually inappropriate or degrading activities in institutions of higher learning and schools; (b) what measures have been taken to ensure adequate oversight by university staff on students organising such activities; (c) how many complaints has the Ministry received in the past five years and what actions have been implemented to prevent recurrence; and (d) why safeguards have not been put in place to prevent the recent incident in the National University of Singapore.

3. To ask the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) with regard to the incidents of sexual harassment and physical abuse during orientation activities at the National University of Singapore (a) what are the existing guidelines for orientation activities and whether students/staff have been properly advised and guided; (b) how many complaints on such lewd orientation activities has each of our tertiary institutions received annually in the last ten years; (c) what measures have been taken by the respective institutions to prevent such abuses by the students or staff who organised the orientation; and (d) how many students or staff have repeatedly been found to be responsible for such orientation activities.

4. To ask the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) in light of the reports of sexual harassment and abuse during orientation activities at the National University of Singapore (a) whether the Ministry has been monitoring this situation in all our tertiary institutions and keeping track of the number and nature of incidents reported; and (b) whether resources have been provided to our institutions to ensure the safety of our students.

Response

1. On 26 July 2016, The New Paper (TNP) published an article on sexualised activities which occurred during freshmen orientation at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The reported acts were demeaning, reprehensible, and have no place in a university.

2. NUS immediately made known that it was against such acts, and that it will take strong disciplinary action against those found responsible. Staff met with student leaders involved in orientation camps to remind them of the regulations.

3. On 28 July, a video went viral – it showed students flat on their backs, being dunked in a shallow pond. It raised fresh concerns about orientation activities.

4. Unlike the first TNP report, these are not sexualised activities. It is a tradition in Sheares Hall, observed by students during special occasions such as birthdays, and is not just for freshmen.

5. The longstanding rule in NUS is that ragging of freshmen is strictly prohibited. As a result, NUS decided to suspend student-organised orientation activities. Given the circumstances, I understand and respect NUS’ decision.

6. Our universities have put in place a multitude of rules and processes to regulate and guide orientation activities.

7. At NUS, all student leaders involved in organising and leading orientation activities are briefed and quizzed on orientation dos and don’ts. Banned activities such as ragging are explicitly highlighted both in the briefings and in NUS’s Student Code of Conduct, and the penalties for such behaviour are clearly stated. Student organisers have to submit detailed orientation proposals to be vetted by staff advisors and the Office of Student Affairs – a painstaking process that takes about three to four months. Any inappropriate activities, such as those involving piggybacking between opposite genders, intimate body contact, and wastage of food, will be removed during this process. Orientation-week, or O-week, culminates in the Rag and Flag, where freshmen work together and raised funds for charity. This year, they raised $472,000.

8. As for NTU, it has over the last three years developed a fresh model for freshmen orientation. A University Undergraduate Co-ordinating Committee, which include student union representatives, sets orientation objectives and guidelines, which includes rules against ragging. There is an explicit recognition of the right of freshmen to opt out of any activities. Student organisations then work with respective faculty and staff to organise the activities. Today, freshmen overnight orientation camps are mostly held within campus and not outside, where discretion is wide and problematic practices tend to occur. This break from the past required some getting used to at first, but it is quite well-accepted now.

9. The other universities – SMU, SIT, SUTD – are much smaller in scale and intake numbers. Their orientation activities are therefore much more closely supervised than NUS and NTU.

10. If all these measures are in place, why do inappropriate orientation activities still happen? They happen when staff and faculty are not watching, and when some students decide to deviate from approved plans. Such inappropriate orientation activities happen occasionally – they are certainly not widespread. To answer the specific questions of members, complaints to the university administrations have been very few over the last five years. Neither have any police reports been filed to date, to the best of our knowledge.

11. Amongst NUS students and alumni, there is a range of views on the matter of orientation. Speaking to them, or reading NUS Whispers, a confessional site for students and alumni alike, one will realise that there is a fairly strong view that orientation has been useful for freshmen. This is because orientation is an integral part of the university experience. This is when freshmen are introduced to university life, its curriculum and demands. This is when they make friends, establish networks and forge bonds that may last a lifetime.

12. After the NUS suspension, one alumna, Sarah Tan, who graduated in 2014, wrote to me. She told me that she was totally against the sexualised activities. But she also disagreed with the suspension of orientation activities. While preparing for this reply, I got her permission to quote her explanation in one of her blogs:

“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 had the opportunity to build up such a large network. I would not have overcome my fear of public speaking. And I definitely would not feel that my time in NUS was the best period of my life... O-week is incredibly important for the freshies…”

13. Personal growth is incredibly important. So is personal safety. Bonding is incredibly important. So too is respect for the dignity of others. University campuses are full of energetic young people, independent-minded, who are stepping up to take their place in the world. On top of that there are rules, unspoken norms, and traditions.

14. In this environment, we should not expect to watch their every move, ameliorate every risk, and cushion every eventuality. We want our young to learn, in and outside of the classroom, from successes as well as mistakes. If something goes wrong, we have to correct them, immediately and thoroughly, and NUS is indeed doing so. For those who did wrong, they will have to expect discipline and rebuke. For those who suffered wrong, they have the option to forgive. For the rest, the system did not start from Lord of the Flies, so let us not push it to 1984.

15. That is why when NUS informed me that they intended to put a stop to orientation this year, we discussed and carefully decided that it should only apply to student-organised team-building activities, and that these would be “suspended” instead of “cancelled” or “banned”. This is because orientation is fundamentally beneficial for freshmen, and the correct response should be to take this opportunity to improve, right the wrongs, and bring it back later, even after lessons have started. It will not be the same as having O-week, but we owe it to the freshmen of 2016. That is what NUS is planning to do.

16. A last point I would like to address is that as NUS tightens its enforcement against ragging, and as orientation activities evolve, some students are going to lament the loss of certain traditions.

17. There is a Chinese wedding tradition, which is to get a little boy to roll on the bed of the couple the night before the wedding. It is supposed to help the couple bear male offspring. I am not sure many young couples follow that tradition anymore. I am not even sure their parents and grandparents are insisting on it either. Traditional practices do change with the times. But couples still faithfully observe tea ceremonies during customary weddings. Because this is not just a ritual, but it also signifies the true spirit of the tradition – which is respect for our elders, and expressing our gratitude to them.

18. What is the true spirit of NUS? Service to society, excellence, passion and integrity, to be the keys to the world. What is the true spirit of Sheares Hall? It is named after Doctor Benjamin Sheares, our second President, who came from humble origins, excelled in his studies, became a doctor, and pioneered new surgical methods. As President, he was widely respected and was a symbol of Singapore’s unity. These are the true spirit of traditions and values that should live on, and that should be expressed in orientation activities and initiation processes.

19. I wish our universities orientations that will inspire freshmen, and which everyone can be proud of, and remember – for the right reasons.

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