It’s difficult to say the words ‘We have a problem’. It means owning up to the pain we may have caused and admitting we’ve made mistakes, and it’s human nature to want to be in the right. But progress only happens when we accept the situation as it is, and identify ways to deal with it. When it was reported that the NUS Orientation Camp had activities promoting rape culture and sexual indecency, it was surprisingly disappointing how many people tried to defend these activities but in that same moment, it was also encouraging that people were talking out loud about their experiences because finally the dominant narrative was being challenged.
I have a number of thoughts, but I need to make some declarations and caveats to my arguments. First of all, yes I don’t attend NUS and attend a college in the US, but I am Singaporean and have been witness to the numerous activities either through Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram etc. as well as the anecdotes of my friends. Secondly, even though the programs I’ve experienced to address similar issues aren’t perfect and perhaps approach a different culture, the intent and themes are the same through and through.
My first issue with orientation programs is their intent. Traditionally, they’ve been designed as a form of induction into a college culture or program. This can come in the form of team-building, sharing of values, and establishment of a safe space. But many times, this also comes in the form of establishing a social hierarchy and perpetuating social norms. The activities that tend to aim predominantly achieve this, either explicitly or worse, intuitively, are what we in the U.S. call hazing. Hazing is when in order to ‘fit into a group’, people are pressured to conduct themselves in a way. There’s normally a psychological deterrent from not participating, commonly through exclusion, ridicule or expulsion. Why is this a bad thing? I hope it’s clear to most people, but for those who find it difficult to accept social hierarchies as innately wrong, I refer you to your own experience where you were excluded from a group simply because of a choice you made that aligned to your own principles. A university is designed to be a place for groups from all parts of society to come together and contribute to a learning environment that will help them grow. When someone is under psychological duress or social stigmatization, it becomes difficult to feel safe and valued in a college environment. While in many ways, it’s meant to prepare you for the real world, which is a dark and difficult place, college is also meant to help you incubate your ideas for change and be a starting ground for shaping your ideas for the future. And don’t worry, colleges tend to be dark and difficult places for a lot of people already, and your experience isn’t necessarily representative of those who suffer on a day to day basis from social stigmatization. Orientation games that contribute to this message need to be severely evaluated and addressed. Hopefully, it also becomes the first step to evaluating all aspects of a college environment that perpetuate the lack of justice and the spread of social hazing.
The second and more obvious issue with the orientation activities was the sexualization of the activities. Let me caveat by saying that anything consensual between two willing partners is completely fine with me. I am not trying to be a moral pundit on what form of sexual expression is appropriate, but what I do believe in is that it is no place of an institution (in this case, the orientation camp committee) to decide to have any activities that take away the agency of a person in deciding his own sexual fate. There’s a huge problem with Singapore’s approach to sexism and patriarchy, and I could write a whole post about it, but this orientation camp clearly is evidence of how pervasive rape culture and the lack of understanding of consent is. Men and women are fed into a patriarchal system where hypermasculinity for men means not saying no and taking up space, both physical and social, even at the expense of women. And for women, they’re told that that’s just how the world is, and they cannot be active agents themselves, but simply passive to the direction of men. So while a legal system can set the first step in hope for equal rights, a culture that clearly does not understand and accept the intention behind the laws is self-defeating.
The scary part isn’t the activities themselves because as many students pointed out, it’s already been removed and the camp can exist without them. It’s in the normalization of the beliefs above, and that people can talk about rape in a joking manner, or believe that they have a say in someone else’s sexual life. It’s the normalization that it’s fine to put someone in a position of submission or weakness and make him follow your way through power mechanisms. It’s the normalization that the ‘real world fallacy’ is justification for your own abuse of power and privilege. Because for society and more importantly, for college students, to progress, we must reject normalization and the ‘way things are’, and continue demanding for a new society built on the values we choose moving forward.
I think NUS canceling the camps was a strategic move to regroup and avoid any future lapses. But I hope it takes the opportunity to through relook its whole culture and understand that systemically it may have a problem in perpetuating the wrong values. And this isn’t a problem just for NUS. It’s a problem for all schools in Singapore, Asia and even the world. I myself will take these lessons back to Northwestern and the institutions I’m a part of.
What I do encourage is for people to continue speaking up. Speak up about your injustice. Speak up because educational institutions in Singapore don’t have transparency on the pervasiveness of sexual crime in its institution even though there is a year on year rise in sexual crime . Speak up because more crimes in Singapore institutions go unreported because of internalized social hierarchies whether gender-based or not. Speak up because you can be an active agent of your own destiny and not a victim of the whims of those with power and privilege.
It’s scary to hear people say nothing is wrong with the way things are, or even that the problem can be easily solved by simply removing aspects of the program. There is a systemic problem and that requires all college students to actively fight to change the system. Don’t allow things to continue as they are, and continue to build a better future.