Drones monitor orientation at NUS

University tries them out at two engineering camps with the student leaders' consent

As students mingled and jostled in a typical rowdy freshmen orientation camp, a drone hovered over them, monitoring their behaviour.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) said a drone each was used at two engineering on-campus camps in June on a trial basis to monitor students and to assess whether they would be effective in replacing in-person spot checks.

The drones were used for less than 10 minutes each time and with consent from student leaders.

NUS freshmen orientation camps gained infamy last year for activities that were crass, and sometimes graphic. In July 2016, The New Paper reported that bonding time included re-enacting incestuous rape, and girls being humiliated into revealing whose bodily fluids they would like to drink.

After an investigation, NUS took action against 30 senior students - suspending some, making others do community service of up to 100 hours and slapping fines of up to $2,000. The university also assembled an Orientation Review Committee (ORC), consisting of faculty members, student leaders and alumni, to recommend changes to orientation activities.

Engineering freshman Aloysia Atienza, who attended an NUS Union camp, said that while organisers may be a little over-protective, she was glad measures were taken to make students feel comfortable. The 19-year-old added: "They just made the freshmen feel more comfortable opting out of activities since many may feel pressured by their peers to take part in some."

At the union camp - the centre of last year's controversy - special care was taken to avoid any type of sexual elements, said participants.

The programme consisted mostly of games and The Amazing Race- themed activities - where students raced to solve puzzles at different locations around the school.

Student leaders at all NUS camps wore lanyards for easy identification, participated in a four-hour peer leadership training course and did an online module with a quiz at the end of it.

But have the activities now erred too much on the side of caution?

NUS confirmed that for activities like Night Walk, "scary make-up" and costumes were discouraged. In Night Walk, students solve puzzles as they move from station to station.

An NUS spokesman said: "The 'Fright Night' activity does not serve the purpose of orientation, where all freshmen should feel welcomed, assured and supported."

While games like Pocky Stick were still played at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) camps, student leaders made sure nobody was forced to get involved.

Pocky Stick involves passing a stick biscuit mouth to mouth, with each person taking a bite, reducing the size of the biscuit. Facilitators stepped in and stopped the game before lips could touch.

"Honestly, it was kind of unhygienic, but I really felt very comfortable and I had the option to sit the game out if I wanted to," said a female student who declined to be identified.

NTU said all student organisers went through a safety briefing and an e-learning module on safety and risk management. It added: "The organisers and seniors have been reminded several times that activities with bullying, distasteful and humiliating elements should never have any place in NTU."

At the Singapore Management University (SMU), games formed the bulk of orientation activities, but Burning Bridges, a game that was part of last year's controversy, remained. It involves awkward questions such as who is likely to get married and who may drop out.

An SMU law student said: "We students are mature enough in general to know where to draw the boundary between jokes and something that can really hurt a person."

SMU said about 1,790 freshmen participated in its orientation this year that just concluded on Aug 3.

It added: "SMU does not support nor endorse activities that may cause distress or discomfort to any participant. Guidelines on what constitutes improper activities are given to student organisers to consider in the design of the activities."

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said there is no need to swing policies to either extremes. She said: "Playing too safe kills creativity and fun. Playing it to the extent of lewdness is offensive. There is space for dialogue between students and school leaders to find a good, fun balance. They are not kids any more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'Drones monitor orientation at NUS'. Print Edition | Subscribe