Why does ragging culture persist in S'pore?

A culture that never seems to die out.

Joshua Lee | May 17, 2018, 04:40 PM

In 2008, a video went viral on YouTube before it was taken down for violation of terms of use.

It showed a Singapore Civil Defence Force recruit with his hands tied up, slathered in black shoe polish.

His National Service mates were filmed taunting him and spraying water on him.

This was a classic ragging activity.

Some 10 years later, another SCDF personnel was put through a different ragging exercise, and this time, he didn't survive.

What is ragging?

According to the dictionary definition, ragging or hazing is regarded as the abuse or humiliation of members of a group with the overall aim of strengthening the pact.

Newcomers are generally coerced into doing things as part of an initiation process.

Leavers of the group are also ragged and hazed to mark the completion of a rite of passage.

With the spotlight on the SCDF, former firefighters recounted the various types of ragging activities they have seen and heard before in the various fire stations across Singapore.

These rituals are used to mark the initiation of newcomers or milestones, such as when personnel complete their National Service stint and reach their operationally ready date (ORD).

They are designed to humiliate, rather than endanger and can include:

• Jumping into the pump well to get covered in algae-filled, dirty water

• Getting clobbered during a "blanket party"

• Inserting a battery into a person's anus

• Moving the person's entire locker onto the roof

• Getting locked up in a cage

Prevalence of ragging

The prevalence of ragging in National Service should not be seen as being limited to or the purview of angsty young men with too much free time.

Any culture that supports and breeds in-group herding mentality is prone to ragging and hazing activities.

It is well-documented in Singapore that university freshmen across the country, had at some point, become acquainted with overly-sexualised orientation games, such as this one below:

In such cases, ragging is carried out as a display of power dynamics, as well as a flattening of the hierarchy.

The reasoning is that whatever the juniors are undergoing, the seniors before them have experienced the same. Or worse.

Members in power, usually based on seniority, continue the tradition having been exposed to it themselves previously.

And then the cycle continues.

Psychological tool

Viewed in evolutionary terms, ragging served as a way for a group to filter out weaker newcomers.

But more than that, it has its use as a psychological tool.

For newcomers who go through humiliating initiation rites, the dissonance between their external actions (e.g. allowing themselves to be humiliated) and what they feel internally, resolves itself by elevating the value of the group in their minds.

A simple way of understanding it is this: Imagine paying money for an ice cream cone.

And then you accidentally drop it on the floor.

You'll feel more upset about it than if you were to drop an ice cream cone you received for free, because paying for it increases the value of the ice cream cone.

By "paying" a price to be part of the group is to elevate the group, which results in a participant being willing to invest more into it in the form of loyalty and trust.

Placed in the context of the military, where soldiers are required to work together, train together, and ultimately, fight together, ragging increases the psychological worth of the in-group.

Which is also why it is not unusual for platoon mates in National Service, or your orientation group mates in university, to strike up lasting friendships that can last a lifetime, solidified in part by the collective "painful" experiences that all in-group participants went through.

If National Service is a class leveller, informal and now highly-illegal ragging is one of the quickest tools in its arsenal.

Ragging for ragging's sake

Perhaps with the passage of time, the essence of ragging gets diluted.

With each successive batch of perpetrators and participants, the process and culture of ragging can and do become more vicious and go overboard.

The culture of ragging snowballs -- without the attendant benefits.

This also explains why ragging in all forms ultimately get banned.

Ragging has been ingrained in military and tertiary education culture, and might never be fully eradicated as it makes its comeback from time to time.

Ragging for ragging's sake should be done away.

Top images of SCDF personnel in 2008 ragging incident