The NUS Orientation scandal
I had typed up a response to the NUS Orientation scandal a few weeks ago but didn't really get out. The story is a few weeks old and probably over already, but it's still interesting, so I'll put it up now.
Was I really surprised about the crazy things that took place during the NUS orientation? No, not really.
First, gang initiation ceremonies have always been something a little dodgy. I'm sure that anthropologists will probably say what I'm about to say in more formal academese, but when you're being inducted into a tribe, there's always some ceremony involved. This is made into ritual because otherwise people will think that it's no big deal. When you become a school prefect, there is investiture. When you become a big public officer, there is an inauguration and swearing in ceremony. When you are joining a gang, you cut your finger, mix the blood, and drink it. Maybe you are also required to commit a crime or murder in order to prove yourself worthy. There's that word again, commit: to act, but also to dedicate yourself to a cause. When you are joining Christianity, you get baptised. When you're joining the administrative service of Qing China, you get your dick lobbed off.
All this hazing fucking shit, we knew about it as schoolkids. Maybe we got this from the British public schools. Somebody would get “flagpoled”. What it means is that somebody would grab a guy by his four limbs, spread out, the legs, and press his butt up against something resembling a flagpole, maybe the edge of a door. All in good clean fun, of course. Sometimes people would rag others. I remember being in a scouts camp, and somebody would line us all up. Tell us to do crazy things like roll over each other. Ask you to strip down to your underwear and spread mud all over you. Crack an egg in your undies (we were gently reminded afterwards to please change our undies and have a good shower).
Apparently in the army, there would be one or two incidents of ragging, especially amongst officer cadets. There was one rumour that somebody got his birthday celebrated by getting jerked off. (precautions were taken: the fist was wrapped in a plastic bag.)
Many of these activities violate good taste, but we saw that they were some kind of bonding, or at least they were something fun to laugh about afterwards. I suppose that's why they happen. They don't happen in mixed company. It's always about the boys. Maybe one or two of the boys are gay. Maybe that's why they're called “gay”, because they get to have so much fun all the time. I still remember there was an effeminate guy who got his pants pulled down, and they sprayed deep heat on his balls.
These encounters can get a little edgy. Sometimes they are. These are social situations where sometimes the mask that you wear every day starts to slip a bit. You end up doing or saying things you normally wouldn't do or say, and to be sure, sometimes people use this as a great opportunity to settle a few scores.
It reminds me of something that the Americans do, whereby there is a “roast”. People would just take turns and stand up in front of an audience and crack jokes and poke fun of a guy, or sometimes, it's a guy doing it to everybody else. One of the most famous examples is Barack Obama at the White House Correspondent's dinner, and he gets to poke fun at everybody else. And sometimes, he does use it to settle a few scores. Long before Donald Trump made a credible bid for the US presidency, he used that moment to poke fun at Trump when Trump was right in front of him, in the audience.
Which brings me to the point whereby the fucking idiot does not know where to draw the line. You get a few guys from NUS, and they've always been chao muggers, followers of rules. And suddenly they're in environments like the NUS students orientation. NUS students are supposed to be the best and brightest of Singapore. Actually, they are the second best and brightest: many other guys end up in Oxford / Cambridge / Ivy League / Stanford / MIT / Caltech / Berkeley. But usually it's like JC orientation, and I didn't really like JC orientation. Going from station to station, playing silly games, and the game master creating some dumb cheesy narrative revolving around some kind of a theme.
But ragging is also done in British public schools. They are places where you get taught quickly that there is a social hierarchy to be adhered to, and you simply respected that. That there were some people higher up in the social order that you. It was also a way to mark out who belonged, and who didn't.
Where the guys organizing these things do not realize is that sometimes there are lines that should not be crossed. These games are not desirable. They are fun once in a while, but I don't like their dark undertones of being the maintenance of a social order. And sometimes, instead of their being a social lubricant, they turn into some other form of a lubricant. Sometimes you have sex starved perverts, barely out of the national service, and the laws on dorm life are so strict, and there's so much sexual frustration. Then some of these games take a darker turn. They get a little – rapey. Maybe their mothers didn't tell them that women do not like having sex with people who are not their boyfriends. (for that matter a lot of women don't even like having sex with their own husbands.)
A lot of this is what I'd put down to people not really having one or two important conversations that they'd normally be having. I'm not sure that I think very highly of the NUS Arts and Social Sciences. But not that I would know, because I didn't attend NUS. And a lot of this has to do with the particular history of NUS.
As you know NUS was formed because they shut down Nantah, which was considered to be LKY's Bete Noire. He was pretty paranoid about it being some kind of breeding ground for political elements, quite possibly communits, but mainly an alternate center of power, outside of the PAP. So there were a lot of controls against it being a place where people could get politicised. I wouldn't study political science in NUS, because the message is very tightly controlled. I went to Snowy Hill instead and took quite a few history and political science electives, and I was happy that I was introduced to a lot of different views about political ideas. They taught you what the main philosophies were, and how they contrasted with each other. In NUS, though, I believe, they'll usually teach you one set of ideas, and they'll teach it to you to a high level of detail, and you'll be drilled on how well you know that in order to sit for your exams. It wasn't an intellectual climate that I completely respected.
I remember that in Snowy Hill, we sometimes had a few speakers, and they were sometimes politically controversial. There was one incident which raised a great big diplomatic stink between nations. There was another time when they brought in a speaker from the Palestine Organization and all the Jews / Zionists were lining up to take potshots and ask questions of her. There was another time when there was a prince from the Middle East, and people were arguing very vehemently about whether it was worth it to bring him in, and give him some legitimacy, since he was associated with a discredited regime. I suppose in a way this was a reflection of western culture, where people argued with you straight to your face. It's not in all respects superior, and sometimes the way that we Asians do it has a lot to recommend it. Everybody gets into a dark smoky room, everybody hammers things out without people having to lose face in public. Things are a lot more simple that way. When you're talking about things on a soap box in public, then it's pretty crazy. But at the same time, I can understand why the Western intellectual tradition has always been more well developed, and why it's the Western universities who are stronger at philosophy and the arts. That's because people, through the process of always having to argue with each other, have to constantly raise their game and come up with more sophisticated ideas, if not more sophistry. So I bet that motherfucker Jim Sleeper who has always been a very vocal opponent of Yale NUS on the basis of Singapore being a not sufficiently liberal place, must be pretty bemused on this recent turn of events. First, you have Yale having that kerfuffle about “safe spaces”. I hope he's ashamed about that, even as I am. And now, you have NUS having a sex scandal. It seems as though it's Singapore who has something to teach Yale about being open minded, rather than the other way around. Anyway, the problem is that many political seminars are all about conveying information, or otherwise conducting political discourse that is very strictly circumscribed within out of bound markers. That's a real problem, because a lot of the time, a lot of questions that need to be asked, to be raised, are not talked about. This is symptomatic of a larger cultural issue in Singapore, and this has a profound impact on how it is run: Singaporeans do not like to discuss things with each other. We learn certain things that we like to think of as “facts”, and after that, we aren't excessively curious about issues that may be larger and more complex. Once we learn something, we don't really question it that much. Once a structure is set up in place, there's not much scope for reviewing it.
Therefore a lot of strange incongruent things happen in Singapore and we don't ask why. We don't ask why hawker food is so cheap while housing and cars are so expensive.
So what I think happened is that NUS orientation has always had a pretty “fratty” culture. But it just got worse and worse over the years because people were pushing the boundaries, and there wasn't any reasoned debate about the way things were going. It didn't help that they were run largely by sex starved males one or two years out of the armed forces. They live in student hostels where you cannot have members of different sex in the same room without opening the doors.
I don't really think that there's anything that malicious about this NUS issue. I've been in the US where even worse things have happened – people can get raped and the rapist gets away, or in some extreme cases, found guilty and given disproportionately light sentences. It's not fair to say that Singapore is truly bad in this respect. But it is very concerting that this happens in student orientations, something that is almost sanctioned by the authorities. This is different from what usually happens in the States, where somebody gets raped / molested / sexually harrassed and the universities don't take enough action. This is an extra-curricular activity that is supposed to be directly managed by the university.
So it was a little surprising to see that a few students were pretty outraged that the university had done the sensible thing of ordering a cessation to all orientation activities. It's like they didn't understand the gravity of the situation. This wasn't about freedom of speech, this wasn't about conservatism, this wasn't about censorship. In those cases, you're only watching something. This is about something that potentially violates somebody's modesty.
And so I'd characterise some of this as violation of modesty. And it's a shame, it's become pretty clear that all this has happened because people don't use their brains, they don't have their faculties of critical thinking. And they've never had freedom, so they never had to really think what that freedom meant to them.