Monday, 1 August 2016

'Sexualised' uni orientation camps spark fierce debate

Parents worried but undergrads say they are old enough to decide
By Yuen Sin and Jeremy Koh, The Sunday Times, 31 Jul 2016

The brouhaha over university orientation camps and whether they have become too "sexualised" has sparked a fierce debate.

The issue prompted the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Friday to suspend all such camps.

Many undergraduates are upset. They said they are old enough to decide what is appropriate for them, and do not need parents and the authorities breathing down their necks. They added that most activities follow guidelines, and while some "black sheep" push the limits of good taste - it is not fair to tar everyone with the same brush.

But there is some concern over these camps after a New Paper report highlighted how the activities include re-enacting rape scenes. There were also complaints about sexually suggestive cheers such as "itai itai yamete", which in Japanese means "it hurts, it hurts. Stop".

Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung weighed in on the issue on Wednesday last week, and called some of the activities "reprehensible".

On Tuesday, NUS said it would take "strong disciplinary action" against those found responsible, and added that it did not "condone any behaviour or activity that denigrates the dignity of individuals, and that has sexual connotations".

But after student leaders were briefed on what was acceptable at the camps, a video showing a male and female getting dunked in a pond in Sheares Hall still surfaced online. Then came the suspension, affecting six NUS camps.

Two student groups - the G Spot from Yale-NUS College and the Gender Collective, an independent group from NUS - in a joint statement said students were "disappointed". "To suspend all (student-organised) activities is... no less than throwing the baby out with the bathwater and will negatively affect the experiences of all incoming freshmen."


An NUS graduate, who was part of the organising committee for a hall camp in 2012, said the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) imposes strict rules for camps, and there is the added threat of suspension or expulsion. Activities are also vetted.

A Singapore Management University (SMU) spokesman also said rules on separate sleeping arrangements between males and females during camps are strictly enforced, and there are also guidelines that ask that physical contact between the sexes be kept to a minimum during activities.

Freshmen who have attended university camps in the last two months said the bulk of activities usually involve team-building games. Those involving physical contact do not have sexual overtones. But what happens after "official" orientation activities ends every day is tougher to control, the graduate said. This is when groups decide on games such as "Truth or Dare", which involves forfeits.

These include things like making a girl perform a pole-dance in front of a boy, or answering questions such as who in their group they would prefer to sleep with.

A female undergraduate who attended a hall camp last month said one game involved a catwalk session, in which groups design their own costumes. One male undergraduate was topless, and had a ketchup bottle positioned at his groin area. This sort of thing made her uncomfortable but the rest of the camp was fine, she added.

Orientation leaders insisted that those uncomfortable with any event can sit it out. A third-year NUS student, who wanted to be known only as Karen, has attended five camps as a freshman and a senior.

She said perceptions of university games being sexualised should not extend to the whole of NUS. "When the activities require forfeits, seniors will not force a freshman to do them if they are shy." Another student who attended a NUS faculty camp said when a girl was uncomfortable with doing the pole dancing, two guys decided to do it instead.

"It's supposed to be amusing, and I don't feel like there were negative undertones as the focus was on bonding. It is the orientation leaders' responsibility to set the boundaries clearly."

A freshman at SMU's School of Social Sciences, said she was asked during camp to answer who in her group she would have sex with.

Other questions included: "If you were in a threesome with someone, who would it be?"

"I took it very lightly. We bonded really well, we shared jokes, we were able to tease each other." If anyone felt uncomfortable answering a question, the group would choose another question, she added.


But some undergraduates said it is sometimes difficult to say no.

A third-year Nanyang Technological University student who attended a camp run by a club in 2014 said she was labelled "uptight" when she criticised games that "reinforced the viewpoint that all females are damsels in distress".

She said: "During Secret Pal, all the girls had to do was to doll up and sit in their own chalets, while the guys needed to perform tasks before they were allowed to meet the girl for a 'date'."

Mr Delane Lim, chief executive of Agape Group Holdings, which conducts talks and youth camps in schools, said peer pressure is a very serious issue. "Young people sometimes don't have the courage to say no because they are scared to be labelled conservative or 'chicken'."

Dr Raymond Cheong, from the Children/Youth Learning and Counselling Clinic, said youth who feel very awkward in social situations or who have been bullied in the past may continue with games despite their discomfort with them because they are afraid of being ostracised if they opt out.

"We should respect others. Some people may not complain, but they may not be okay with (the activities)."

There also seems to be some confusion on the role of such camps. Are they to allow people to get to know one another as part of networking efforts, or are they to encourage both sexes to get more comfortable with each other?

The Social Development Network (SDN) has previously offered funding to sponsor orientation camps.

Student leaders said they were urged to include activities that had a better mix of males and females, and which involved a certain level of interaction - but not "inappropriate physical contact".

Responding to queries from The Sunday Times, the SDN said it has stopped funding university camps and events since January this year.

But one NUS graduate said such sponsorships meant some organisers "felt compelled" to include activities that get both sexes to touch each other "more".

The use of cheers and activities that touched on rape was especially worrying, experts said.

Clinical sexologist Martha Tara Lee said the instances of lewd and disrespectful games could be partially due to the lack of comprehensive sexuality education that emphasises consent.

"Since sex is considered a sensitive taboo, making exaggerated shows of bravado about sex might seem 'adult' but in reality, it is an overcompensation of their own ignorance and discomfort around sex," she said.

Reports on games or forfeits that take on a sexual slant - such as guys doing push-ups over girls - go as far back as 2008.

The G Spot and Gender Collective urged NUS to introduce long-term measures "to foster a culture of respect and consent" to help address the underlying issues.

These include a workshop on understanding consent, sexual respect and violence, and developing a more rigorous feedback mechanism between students and staff.


Still, the idea of too much oversight has upset undergraduates. Even before the suspension, and after the issue was highlighted in the press, one student organiser of an NUS residence hall camp said he was told that games cannot involve any body contact.

For instance, a game in which boys and girls had their hands tied together was scrapped.

"It's not really that the games were that bad. It's just that, with the negative press lately, they felt, better safe than sorry," said another student organiser.

An SMU fourth-year student said: "Such rules are a desperate move to pacify parents. People at university are adults. If there are staff members keeping watch all the time, you will be micro-managing students. What is the point of organising activities yourself?"

NUSSU apologises for 'indecent' freshman orientation games
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 1 Aug 2016

The beleaguered students' union of the National University of Singapore (NUS) has broken its silence about reported sexualised activities at orientation camps it organised.

In an official statement that was posted on its Facebook page yesterday, the NUS Students' Union (NUSSU) apologised to the freshmen who had gone through such activities, which it called "indecent, reprehensible and not condoned".

Stressing that such activities were not endorsed by NUSSU or any of its constituent clubs or committees, it added that it was helping the university with investigations.

Last Friday, the university suspended all orientation activities, following a New Paper report about increasingly sexualised orientation games, some of which involved the simulation of rape scenes.

In its post, NUSSU said it had not been consulted regarding the suspension. "The hard work of our organising committees and volunteers should not have been sacrificed due to the errant behaviours of some students."

NUSSU said that the camp's organising committee had had its proposals subjected to "strict and thorough scrutiny" by NUS beforehand, and that the activities in question "clearly fell outside the scope of activities" it had in mind.

NUSSU also said that it had received several reports of its students being called names and harassed by members of the public.

The "inappropriate behaviour of a few errant students", it reiterated, "is not an accurate and conclusive representation of the entire NUS undergraduate population of over 28,000".

"The union would like to seek the public's understanding and we sincerely appeal to you to refrain from extending such treatment to our students."

It stressed that student welfare remains its top priority, and said that it would work together with faculty and non-faculty clubs to see how it could still welcome freshmen despite the recent developments.

It added that it would also work with NUS in "restoring the faith in all student-led events, to identify and rectify the issues arising from the surfaced inappropriate cases while not compromising the interest of our students".


* Improper orientation games: NUS disciplines 30 students

By Calvin Yang and Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2016

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has taken action against 30 students for their role in inappropriate orientation activities in July.

In a circular sent to students yesterday and obtained by The Straits Times, deputy president (academic affairs) and provost Tan Eng Chye stated the range of punishments meted out. These included suspension for a semester, fines of up to $2,000 and mandatory community service of up to 100 hours.

Other disciplinary actions included "behavioural rehabilitation programmes focused on respect and socially acceptable behaviour", statements of reflection on the incidents, and official reprimands that will be on permanent record.

The students disciplined had been involved in orientation camps, including ones for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the NUS Students' Union.

The offences ranged from "disorderly and offensive behaviour, to organising and participating in improper orientation activities that potentially put other students' physical welfare at risk".

The investigations involved about 400 freshmen and senior students. Those found responsible for inappropriate behaviour were then brought before disciplinary boards. The disciplinary process took place between August and early this month.

The boards issued penalties to 30 students found to have breached the university's statutes and regulations or code of student conduct.

Upon receiving notification of the punishments, the students were given two weeks to appeal. However, no appeals were filed, according to the circular.

Professor Tan said many of the students expressed regret and apologised for their behaviour.

"We hope that they will learn from this episode and grow into responsible and respectful individuals," he wrote.

A 14-member Orientation Review Committee comprising faculty members, student leaders and alumni was convened in August to review and offer recommendations to improve freshmen orientation. It is expected to submit its report to NUS later this month.

Prof Tan noted that freshman orientation activities are an important rite of passage at NUS, and many students have had meaningful experiences.

He said: "We thus expect all orientation activities at NUS to be meaningful, safe and fully respectful of the dignity of those participating. We also expect our students, seniors and freshmen alike, to behave in a manner befitting of this highly regarded university community."

** NUS spells out rules for orientation activities
New NUS framework to bar 'negative' activities from freshmen orientation camp
By Tan Tam Mei, The Straits Times, 27 Jan 2017

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has implemented a new framework that bars activities with "negative features" from its freshman orientation camps that caused a public outcry last year.

These activities include ragging, causing physical or mental harm, violating one's dignity and those that promote deliberate close body contact.

The framework, which spells out rules and guidelines, was sent to students yesterday. It covers all orientation activities organised for first-year students of the new academic year.

Although the academic semester starts this August, the changes kick in for the orientation camps, which are usually held between June 1 and just before school begins in August.

They are also applicable outside the orientation camps' formal hours.

For instance, one new guideline states that at least one safety officer must be appointed from the camp's organising committee, with the suggested ratio of one officer to 50 first-year students.

All activities must also be vetted and approved by the organising committee, staff adviser and the Office of Student Affairs.

These include main camp activities as well as activities done during free time, waiting time and night time, including cheers and forfeits.

Student leaders must also attend a peer leadership course, and staff advisers will be required to conduct random checks on the camp.

The new framework is the outcome of a review launched following media reports last July of sexualised activities at NUS orientation camps. These included students being forced to simulate a rape scene between siblings. Some students also said they were coerced into taking part in other sexually suggestive activities.

An Orientation Review Committee was convened and submitted its findings and recommendations to the university last October.

The Straits Times obtained a copy of the circular sent yesterday by the university's provost and deputy president for academic affairs, Professor Tan Eng Chye. An NUS spokesman confirmed the document and its contents.

Said a Year 2 student from the Faculty of Science, who wanted to be known only as Esther: "There might not be as much free rein as before, and some of us are a bit sore about it.

"But the framework is suitable, and I hope we can all move on from here."

A parent of a Year 4 NUS student, who wanted to be known only as Mr Wong, 59, said: "It might be a little too late, because such activities have been around for so long. But at least now there are boundaries and it might prevent such things from happening again."

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University said separately that their students work closely with the school in the running of freshman orientation camps to ensure safety of activities and that they are appropriate.

Said Professor Kwok Kian Woon, NTU's associate provost (student life): "No freshmen should begin university by being subjected to harassment, humiliation, undue peer pressure and unquestioning obedience."

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