A Crisis for One NUS

By Zit Seng

More than anything, the events in the last week or so will be an important lesson, albeit a painful one for students, and perhaps administrators too. This saga has seen many people taking different sides on the many issues at hand. It’s one thing to have NUS vs the media, or NUS vs the public. But the taking of sides also happens within NUS.

There is only one National University of Singapore. One NUS. Some people are hoping to brush off the few incidents raised as rare and not representing the norm. Perhaps. But when such incidents repeat year after year, it establishes a pattern. The pattern suggests a systemic problem. A problem that is on-going, and not resolved.

We cannot have one group of students say it’s just a small other minority, those few black sheep, and that they themselves are different. Is everyone not part of the same NUS? Sure, it is not fair that a few black sheep can spoil things for everyone. But that’s exactly how things are isn’t it? Do you think anyone else cares that there is one part of NUS that behaves properly, are responsible and respectful, as opposed to another part of NUS that isn’t so good?

NUS has cancelled most of the remaining orientation activities. It took many people by surprise.

An alumna was quoted in the Straits Times:

“It is an incredibly superficial and shortsighted move on the school’s part, thinking that removing a one-week event will solve deep-rooted issues of sexual harassment and misogyny once and for all."

I’m sorry, but this is only the beginning. It is a necessary first step. Does she have a better solution? If she did at all have the slightest solution, obviously the Straits Times felt it was not worth mentioning.

It’s evident that NUS has tried a light touch over the years. Students want to be treated as adults, and the university administration has tried to engage them as adults.

Now, about the claims that the media is sensationalising and blowing up the issues, perhaps they are. But aren’t they just reporting the news? We aren’t reading an editorial piece where you can expect the writer to do deep research and write a balanced, well-thought, article. It’s just reporting the news. Don’t we already know that’s how news work?

The issue has no doubt erupted into a serious matter this year, and something drastic needed to be done. Yet, it’s apparent many student groups still don’t understand the gravity of the matter. Despite all the media spotlight the last week, some groups continued to blatantly disregard the rules. What do you want the university to do?

Can you just imagine this. You are being reprimanded, and yet, at the same time, you still commit the same offences that you were being reprimanded for? So apparently, the dunking was the last straw.

After a few soldiers died in training during national service training activities, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) suspended all training exercises. Mindef did not say to look into partial suspension for errant units only. Some people were already complaining about why action was not taken earlier. Yet, here we hear some student groups think it suffices to just suspend orientation for “those noncompliant groups”, or that the student body should be engaged in a more consultative approach.

There is just one NUS. Suspending activities across the whole university makes sense. It is bold, and I was indeed surprised too, but it makes sense.

This is a timeout to seriously reflect on what had gone wrong, and how things can improve in the future. This is not the time to find fault and blame others. Yes, much as some politicians like to talk about a blame-free culture, some people must be held accountable for their reprehensible actions and face up to disciplinary actions.

A statement issued by two student group, the G Spot and Gender Collective, said:

"While it is disappointing that some students have breached the trust by carrying out unauthorised activities that flout the university’s rules, we believe that it is more harmful than beneficial to our university community for the administration to adopt such an authoritarian approach.">

Yes, it is a lose-lose situation now. The light touch did not work. The heavy hand has to come. But the heavy hand has its consequences too. Did they think that the university administration had not considered the consequence of what they were doing?

Students also need to understand that what constitutes acceptable and appropriate behaviour is defined by society. It is not up to them alone to choose. As reported in the Straits Times:

"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."

We live as a part of society, and behavioural norms are decided by society. A group of students cannot just come together and decide that their activities are reasonable and appropriate. No group of students can tell the public that what they do is none of the public’s concern. They represent NUS. In the context of orientation activities, they are not private, anonymous, individuals. The public has a right to be concerned, because parents have children in or will go to NUS. The public has a right to be concerned, because NUS is a premier university in Singapore, one that spends public money. The public has a right to be concerned, because what happens in NUS and what NUS does is also a reflection of Singapore.

What NUS has on its hands now is a crisis of sorts. Yes, it may sound a bit of a exaggeration to call it a crisis, but it is a crisis. The university’s image has been tarnished. The hard work that has put NUS at the top of global university rankings is threatened. It’s not just orientation activities that are at stake. It is the reputation of NUS at stake. Those students who engaged in those inappropriate activities had probably never thought how their small actions at their level can have such a far-reaching impact.

This O Week, or Orientation Week, will be one of the most unique ones in NUS. It will be an O Week without most of the ‘O’. NUS, the students and administrators, should take this unique opportunity to work together to see how they can create a successful O Week without those usual ‘O’ activities. Take it as a challenge.

Instead of giving up and writing off AY2016/7 as the year of failed orientation, it can perhaps set a precedent, starting a new tradition of orientation that everyone can be proud of.

Note: While I work in NUS, I neither represent students, nor am I any sort of “administrator” relevant in this saga. I am an alumnus.

This article first appeared on Zit Seng's blog on 1 August 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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