It’s all fun and games, until…

This August, the National University of Singapore suspended all orientation camp activities after news of sexualised games and forfeits made the headlines. CLEO speaks to four girls to find out what their own university orientation camp experiences were like and better understand how and why those incidents happened.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
This August, the National University of Singapore suspended all orientation camp activities after news of sexualised games and forfeits made the headlines. CLEO speaks to four girls to find out what their own university orientation camp experiences were like and better understand how and why those incidents happened. 
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Raunchy orientation games are nothing new. A decade ago, The Straits Times reported on orientation games that involved lip contact. Another activity saw freshmen washing each other’s armpits, even those of the opposite gender. 

But earlier this year, the issue was thrown back into the spotlight when The New Paper reported that a male and female freshman had to reenact an incestuous rape scene. 

The article also highlighted an incident where a female freshman was asked inappropriate questions, like who in her group was the sluttiest girl, and which guy’s bodily fluid she’d drink. 

The final straw was when a video went viral on social media: it showed four male students holding a girl and guy in a spreadeagle position, and dunking them repeatedly under water. 

Game on 

So are these raunchy orientation camps a regular feature at university camps? 

Not quite, according to the girls we spoke to. 

“Some people actually warned me about how sexual or ‘dirty’ these university camps can get, so I was prepared to say no to certain games or forfeits if I didn’t feel comfortable,” says Francesca*, 22, a student at Nanyang Technological University. She has participated in three camps and says, “That kind of stuff never happened to me or my orientation group. But I did hear of some university camps that got a little more wild.”

Another camper, Grace, 26, recalls a bizarre game where they had to play Captain’s Ball on the beach – using pieces of slimy raw chicken as the ball. “Some games were mildly physical, like having to hold hands or using our mouths to pass each other food, but I didn’t feel like those games had sexual undertones.” 

“The physicality itself was not what annoyed me, but… it felt like no thought went into accommodating students who weren’t comfortable with such games,” says Grace. She says that while no one was forced to do anything, the only other option was to sit the games out, which felt like an extreme alternative to her. 

Another student told CLEO she didn’t find any games out of line during her own faculty and hall camps – although she adds some people in her group felt it was inappropriate to have male students giving female students piggyback rides for certain games. 

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One for all, all for one

Looking back, it’s easy to say these games are inappropriate. But social psychologists say this might not have occurred to students at the time. 

“When people are making decisions as a group, individual members tend to behave in a way that the decision will be more extreme than the initial inclination of its members. This idea is called group polarisation,” explains Dr Albert Lee, Assistant Professor in the Division of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University. 

“For example, once individual members make their attitudes public, members that follow are more likely to express agreement due to the motivation to fit in or to appear agreeable – this results in a highly polarised decision.” 

Two of the girls CLEO spoke to mentioned an orientation game called “special partner”, where boys and girls are blindfolded and matched up with a partner they don’t know. As they gamely try to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger while wearing a blindfold, senior students prank them or try to get them to hold hands. 

“I’m not sure anyone voiced discomfort, but I could see why some people would feel uncomfortable with this game,” says Grace. “I was more annoyed than uncomfortable. To me, it seemed like these pranks were done more for the amusement of the seniors, like we were animals in the zoo.” 

Adds another former student: “I found it stupid. I felt it was only fun for the seniors because they get to disturb you.” 

Controversial hazing cases aren’t unique to Singapore. A number of varsity schools in Portugal, Thailand and throughout the US have come under fire for inappropriate hazing, with some cases even involving fatalities. 

Considering that orientation camps are supposed to make you feel welcome, why do senior students want to make things difficult for freshmen? 

“Given the importance of coalitions throughout human history, we may have evolved a tendency to want new members to prove themselves. So if you’re already in an organisation and you have some authority, you may be inclined to put new people through some extra trouble,” says Dr Norman Li, Lee Kong Chian Fellow and Associate Professor of Psychology at Singapore Management University. 

And if you think about it, this culture of having newcomers prove themselves isn’t new. New employees won’t reject the invitation when their bosses ask them out to the bar even if they don’t drink. Newlyweds will bend over backwards as long as their in-laws demand it. 

You can see how it might be hard for some students to say no in such circumstances. 

In the case reported in The New Paper, some female students tried to leave the camp because they felt uncomfortable with what was going on. But what about students who had their doubts, but still stayed? 

“When people voluntarily sign up to endure hardship to gain group membership, there is a good chance they will try to justify their efforts,” notes Dr Albert. He explains if the student feels the games are stupid but still goes through with them, she will try to convince herself that being part of this social group is so important that the end justifies the means. 

“People tend to unknowingly convince themselves of this,” Dr Albert adds.

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Moving forward 

So what about those risque games and forfeits highlighted in the news report? All the girls CLEO spoke to agree they shouldn’t have been played.  

“They were definitely inappropriate. No excuses whatsoever,” says Grace. “Forfeits can be funny or embarrassing, but I think it’s important to assess each activity that students go through. What’s the motivation? Why act out a rape scene? I don’t think it’s funny to be subjected to such a forfeit,” adds Sherry, a 22-year-old student from Nanyang Technological University who had been actively involved in orientation activities for the past four years. 

“The sexual forfeits in the news were never organised by camp committees. They were carried out by Group Leaders of the freshmen groups,” says Diane*, 25, who has attended five university camps as both a participant and a member of the planning committee from 2010 to 2012. 

She explains that a committee – usually made up of 20 to 30 senior students – plans activities in advance, but only Group Leaders have direct interaction with freshmen. Group Leaders are usually senior students, but they’re not necessarily part of the planning committee. 

“Group Leaders have the time during the camp to play icebreaker games. That’s where the forfeits come in. Spare time is not regulated by the camp committee, and they can’t go around checking on every group every minute,” she adds. 

After the video of the two freshmen getting dunked was leaked, NUS announced a suspension on all orientation camps. In a statement to the media, a spokesman for NUS said water dunking or any other form of ragging is strictly banned under the university’s guidelines for student activities, and that an investigation will be conducted. It was reported that disciplinary actions will be taken against those responsible. 

“We are deeply disappointed some of our students flouted the rules and behaved in an unacceptable manner in organising freshman activities,” said the spokesman.