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Freshmen student-organised orientation activities in campus need to be more closely supervised

In light of the reported activities which took place at the orientation camps of the National University Singapore (NUS), Dr Chia Shi-Lu from Tanjong Pagar GRC, Mr Zaqy Mohamad from Chua Chu Kang GR,  Mr Gan Thiam Poh from Ang Mo Kio GRC, and  Miss Cheng Li Hui from Tampines GRC raised questions in Parliament for the acting Minister for Education on whether there are existing regulations in holding such activities and what measures had been taken by the respective institutions to prevent such abuses by the student or staff who organised the orientation.

In a report by The New Paper (TNP) on 26 July 2016, sexualised activities were reported to have taken place during freshmen orientation at NUS. Just a few days later on 28 July 2016, a video of students being dunked in a shallow pond went viral.

Subsequently on 29 July 2016, the Provost of NUS had suspended all student-organised orientation activities.

Questions were asked about the past incidents, such as whether the students or staffs who were found guilty, how many of them and what kind of action had been taken as the disciplinary acts.

The Minister noted that at NUS, all student leaders who are involved in organising and leading orientation activities are briefed and quizzed on orientation dos and don’ts and are made clear of the penalties of such behaviour. The university also required student organisers to submit detailed orientation proposals to be vetted by staff advisors and the Office of Student Affairs – the process usually takes three or four months.

Referring to the viral video, He pointed out that this is a tradition in Sheares Hall observed by students during special occasions such as birthdays and it is not only for freshmen. Orientation-week, or O-week, culminates in the Rag and Flag, where freshmen work together and raised funds for charity. raising $472,000 this year.

As for the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), a University Undergraduate Co-ordinating Committee, which include student union representatives, sets orientation objectives and guidelines, which includes rules against ragging. Student organisations then work with respective faculty and staff to organise the activities, where the freshmen are made clear that they have the right option out of any activities. A fresh model for freshmen orientation which has been developed over the last three years held the overnight orientation camps mostly within the campus area, since having the outside activities tends to create the problematic practices.

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.

After all the measures that had been taken, such activities occurred when staffs and faculty are not watching. The students deviated from approved plans.

The Minister said, “Such inappropriate orientation activities happen occasionally,” and added, “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,”

Those who have read the NUS Whispers, a confessional site for students and alumni alike, will realise that there is strong view that orientation has been useful for freshmen. The orientation is an integral part of the university experience when freshmen are introduced to university life, its curriculum and demand.

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. However, she also disagreed with the suspension of orientation activities. While preparing for the reply, the Minister 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…”

The Minister then said that due to the importance of the freshmen orientation programme where the freshmen can make friends, establish networks and forge bonds, it has discussed the matter and decided to suspend the activities, not cancel or ban it for they will arrange to hold the activities later after setting things “right”.

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