PARLIAMENT

Varsity orientation useful, says minister

An orientation activity at NUS in June. Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said while personal safety and respect for the dignity of others were key priorities, there was no need for draconian measures. The univer
An orientation activity at NUS in June. Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said while personal safety and respect for the dignity of others were key priorities, there was no need for draconian measures. The university had halted orientation camps last month.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Inappropriate activities at university orientation camps are not widespread, and happen only occasionally. And while personal safety and respect for the dignity of others are key priorities, there is no need for draconian measures, said Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

Instead, the suspension of orientation camps at the National University of Singapore (NUS) last month was a move that was taken only after careful deliberation, and lifting it after the university makes improvements and "(rights) the wrongs" would be the correct response, he added.

This will ensure that this year's freshmen will not be denied the chance to attend orientation, which Mr Ong described as " fundamentally beneficial".

"For those who did wrong, they will have to expect discipline and rebuke. For those who suffered wrong, they have the option to forgive."

Yesterday, an NUS spokesman told The Straits Times that since Aug 8, "we have progressively been allowing some student-organised orientation activities to resume" and it was looking at the possibility of organising additional activities for freshmen during the semester.

The spokesman added that NUS will "review student orientation programmes comprehensively" to ensure that they are organised in ways that serve the purpose of welcoming and introducing freshmen to the university community.

Mr Ong gave his written response to questions by several MPs on the issue, which flared up after a New Paper report highlighted how orientation activities at NUS were getting increasingly sexualised, including one which simulated a rape scene. A key concern was how common such activities were.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked whether any civil or criminal suits have been filed in response to such sexually offensive activities before.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also asked about the number of complaints the authorities have received.

Mr Ong said that no police reports have been filed to date, to the best of his ministry's knowledge, and added that there have been very few complaints to universities here over the last five years.

He said rules against such activities are already in place at varsities. At NUS, this includes submitting orientation proposals to staff and highlighting banned activities like ragging, he explained.

NTU has also developed a new model for freshmen orientation over the last three years, which includes an explicit recognition of the right of freshmen to opt out of any activity.

Now, overnight orientation camps are mostly held within campus and not outside, where discretion is wide and problematic practices tend to occur.

The controversial activities happen "when staff and faculty are not watching, and when some students decide to deviate from approved plans".

After talking to students and alumni, and reading posts on the confessional Facebook page NUSWhispers, Mr Ong said there was a "fairly strong view" that orientation is useful for freshmen.

He highlighted a blog post by NUS graduate Sarah Tan, who had written to him saying that she was against the sexualised activities, but she also disagreed with the suspension.

On her blog, she said that the camps helped her to overcome her fear of public speaking and gave her the opportunity to build a large network of friends.

Said Mr Ong: "In this environment, we should not expect to watch their every move, ameliorate every risk and cushion every eventuality. We want our young to learn, in and outside of the classroom, from successes as well as mistakes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Varsity orientation useful, says minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe