orientations and the issues of social programming


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.

Keep believing.




the singaporean mystery


It’s a curious time here in Singapore. 50 years have passed (now going on to 51) and every time I talk to someone, the same question has popped up. What does it mean to be Singaporean? Why should I be proud to be here? It’s such a captivating mystery for so many reasons, the most prominent being that we’re becoming politically more active and our guiding principles for voting are starting to shape.

This question is very much tied to another question : Do I love Singapore? For some, knowing the answer to the first question helps provide the response for the second. For me, they’re independent. I know I love Singapore, but in a more adult way. As a kid, you love as a kid. You love without prejudice, and without reservation. But as an adult, your love is tempered. You choose to love because of all the reasons you choose to put over the reasons that would push you away. You choose to accept the problems and the blemishes. This consideration is important, because while I do not know yet what it means to be Singaporean, my love for Singapore remains. Because I as I continue to try to discover the Singaporean spirit, I’m presented with both the attractive and ugly sides of my fellow people and I choose to continue to love them because we have a shared identity somewhere. I wouldn’t call this so much nationalistic as much as I think it is simply in preservation of what I feel strongly to be home.

I have come to some interim conclusions though. Some conclusions based on recent history and some based on history as we know it. I think these are important conclusions to accept, lest we face a Trumpesque bigotry or a Brexitesque xenophobia.

The first is that Singapore isn’t homogeneous. Who we are is simply not tied to the 8 defining characters of personal identity: Ability, Age, Ethnicity, Race, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Socioeconomic Status. John Cena recently conducted a video for Americans on the 4th of July (Link Here) asking them to close their eyes and identify a typical American. Where most people would identify a white able-bodied straight male in the U.S., I asked myself what we would answer in Singapore. Do we accept that we no longer just have Malays, Indians and Chinese as Singaporeans? So what if they’re the majority races, why do we not include the rest in our conversation of Singaporean representation? Do we accept that the Singaporean narrative cannot be a patriarchal one, about how men have built this country and that women are allowed to be oppressed through institutions that do not stop sexual assault and allow casual statements on rape and a gender hierarchy? Do we accept that we do have people who are not heterosexual, and that regardless of our religious views that they exist and consider themselves Singaporeans too, that they have gone through NS or school with us and deserve rights just as much as anyone else? These are not Western ideas, these are humanist ones. Singapore isn’t the same fishing village that we started off as that could be easily segmented. No, we’re nuanced, we’re diverse, we’re richly different and we need to find our common spirit away from the social identifiers.

The second is that being Singaporean is an attitude. Think about it, when you picture the ‘What does it mean to be ________’ for most developed countries, you picture an attitude rather than a physical trait. And that’s good, because while it’s important to celebrate diversity and provide spaces for people to celebrate their identities, the political question of ‘Why am I proud to be here’ must be tied to a secular, neutral but values driven aspect of being Singaporean. Is it that we overcome adversity, because hell yeah we do. Is it that we pack more of a punch that it looks like, because this little red dot has done so much for its size. Is it that we celebrate all, because that would be amazing. Finding something common and innate is difficult. But it must be done, for being a Singaporean is a mighty title these days, and it must stand for something.

Finally, the answer to my questions is not stuck in the past. One of my biggest grievances is that some of the biggest campaigns to find the answer to the questions has involved rehashing stories from the ‘good ol’ days’ and making us look to our forefathers. Yes, we’ve done great stuff to come where we are, and we should learn from them. But for all the great strides that we made in the past, we also took steps backwards in arenas of social progress and political maturity. And we’ll continue to make strides forward, and some steps backwards. That’s the way things are, that’s how societies evolve. History teaches us not to emulate the past but to grow from it. Is our future so grim (hardly, based on the work I’ve been seeing at EDB) that we need to be constantly reminded of our past in a form of propaganda to soothe our uncertainty? We need to look at everything: past, present and especially the future and realize that there is a continuum of experiences, each playing an important role in shaping our national identity, and that all must be appreciated to truly answer the questions.

I’ve provided some conclusions to what it is NOT to be Singaporean. I haven’t really given any more clarity into what it actually is, but the danger I’ve seen is that people fall into the traps of the incorrect conclusions way too often and that provides only problems for the country. The answer won’t be some major announcement, nor some big statement. It would be something that’s said once, maybe twice, and it will echo in the hearts of every Singaporean. The truth of the matter is that we’re getting closer to the answer and we must keep talking. We must keep discussing issues of importance; political, social, interpersonal, all of them. We will form a truer representation of who we are through that, and then we can finally demystify the great mystery. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to finally say what it means to be Singaporean?