Orientation 'fundamentally beneficial' for freshmen: Ong Ye Kung

An orientation activity at National University of Singapore (NUS)’ University Town on June 27, 2016.
An orientation activity at National University of Singapore (NUS)’ University Town on June 27, 2016.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH QI QI

SINGAPORE - Inappropriate activities at university orientation camps are not widespread, and only happen 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 taken only after careful deliberation, and lifting it after the university makes improvements and "(rights) the wrongs" would be the correct response, he added in a written response in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 16).

This will ensure that this year's freshmen will not be denied the chance to attend orientation, which Mr Ong described as " fundamentally beneficial" . NUS confirmed on Tuesday (Aug 16) that the suspension was lifted last Monday (Aug 8).

In July, complaints about sexually offensive activities at NUS' orientation camps, including a game forfeit which simulated a rape scene, triggered a public outcry after these were reported in The New Paper. This led to a suspension of such camps.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked whether any civil or criminal suits have been filed in response to such sexually offensive activities. Mr Ong said that no police reports have been filed to date, to the best of MOE's knowledge.

He also said in response to questions from Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) that there have been very few complaints to the university authorities about orientation activities over the last five years.

The universities have a number of rules and processes to regulate orientation activities, Mr Ong added. At NUS, this includes submitting orientation proposals to staff.

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 activities.

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

He said Singapore Management University, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and the Singapore Institute of Technology are much smaller and their orientation activities are "much more closely supervised" than NUS and NTU.

Mr Ong said that inappropriate activities "happen occasionally" and are certainly not widespread."They happen when staff and faculty are not watching, and when some students decide to deviate from approved plans."

There is a "fairly strong view" that orientation has been useful for freshman, based on conversations with students and alumni, and posts made by them on confessional site NUSWhispers, Mr Ong said.

He highlighted a blog post written by Sarah Tan, an NUS graduate, who had written to him saying she was against the sexualised activities, but also disagreed with the suspension of orientation activities. She had written about how joining orientation camps helped her to overcome her fear of public speaking, and gave her the opportunity to build a large network of friends.

Mr Ong said there is a need to balance the different priorities of personal growth, personal safety, bonding and respect for the dignity of others.

"University campuses are full of energetic young people, independent-minded, who are stepping up to take their place in the world...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. If something goes wrong, we have to correct them, immediately and thoroughly, and NUS is indeed doing so. For those who did wrong, they will have to expect discipline and rebuke. For those who suffered wrong, they have the option to forgive. For the rest, the system did not start from Lord of the Flies, so let us not push it to 1984. "