In defence of Orientation Camps: I went for 6 camps in 4 years at NTU, & I have no regrets

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Jeanette Tan | August 24, 2019 @ 10:18 am


Yes, you’re reading that right — in my four-year honours degree course at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, I attended no less than six freshman orientation camps (FOCs).

Yes, I’m a crazy camper

Not because I repeated academic years, but simply for a range of varying activities: hall camp, the Catholic Students Apostolate camp in my second year, and after enjoying my school’s FOC so much before starting my first year in school, I would go on to be involved in organising the camp for my juniors in my second year, and attach myself to groups as a senior in my third and final years as well.

You might say I’m a crazy camper — I can’t disagree; I greatly enjoy the games, the cheers, (in the case of WKW camps, the genius overarching themes and stories the camp’s programmes follow) and especially when I was a senior, the tekan-ing.

I even enjoyed the experience of tucking myself into a sleeping bag past 2am amid a sea of others, in a Sentosa pavilion over one of the camp’s nights.

That was me (second from the right) and a few others, laughing at and bullying blindfolded freshies thinking they were in a group with others in Sentosa on one of the evenings’ activities. (Old photo courtesy of Malcolm Koh)

Camps I’ve gone through were a mix of disgusting (sanitation wise) and slightly sexual

In recent years, however, I’ve noticed, to my annoyance, that the FOC has earned itself a bad name for making freshmen partake in overly-sexualised activity.

Take the most recent (and most perplexing, might I add) “kukubird” chant and dance sequence filmed at an NTU camp, for instance:

NTU investigating video of students performing obscene cheer during freshman orientation camp

The first thought that came to me was, “Why, guys?”

Is this really necessary? Are there no more creative, less crass words to use in a cheer?

In writing this, I recall one cheer my group did at my first year’s school FOC that involved bananas and papayas. It went something like this:

This is my banana, nanananana
This is your banana, NAnananana
Chop off your banana, nanananana
You have no banana, hahaha

This is my papaya, yayayayaya
This is your papaya, YAyayayaya
Chop off your papaya, yayayayaya
You have no papaya, hahaha

It is accompanied with actions — chiefly the use of both our hands to indicate relative size; i.e. my banana or papaya is much longer/larger than yours. But no pointing to any body parts those fruits may by inference also refer to (not sure what you have in mind, because I don’t have any in mind).

We had another banana-related cheer that runs a bit longer — the lyrics suggest innuendo that ends up in a song about counting bananas, and which we usually deployed on a person we chanced upon who had fallen asleep to shock them awake in the most satisfying way:

Peeping through the window, what do people see?
If you want to jiak kim jio (banana in Hokkien), do the proper way.
Meet me tonight by the moonlight

Meet me tonight all alone.
I’ve got something to show you,
Something that’s yellow and long…

One banana, two bananas, three bananas, four (hey!)
Five bananas, six bananas, many many more.
One banana, two bananas, three bananas, four (hey!)
Five bananas, six bananas, many many more.
Many many more (hey!) 
(and we repeat this a number of times, because we’re annoying that way, dragging out the last time we repeat the “many many more”)!!!

Apart from cheers, I have had to be carried piggyback across a distance by a dude I had only just met as part of a game, saw a girl and another guy hold a balloon between her cheek and his butt (fully clothed, thankfully), got raw egg cracked over and into my hair, starch on my T-shirt and watched group mates get tossed into grimy, opaque, algae-filled ponds.

My male seniors have also related stories of being made to sit on girls’ laps and drink beer (preferable to a reverse situation, I suppose) and passing poker cards adhered to their lips only through sucking in air, while standing in a line alternating between guy and girl.

So looking at the above, I’d say the games and activities I experienced in school and hall camps were a mix of disgusting (sanitation wise) and slightly sexual — but thankfully, nowhere near as bad as the cases that made the news, both for NUS and NTU.

In my opinion, at least.

One thing is key: consent, consent, consent — for all camp participants

University was a long time ago for me, I will admit.

That being said, I was quite clear that if there was something I wasn’t comfortable doing, I would’ve simply said no to doing it. I had a boyfriend throughout my four years, and if I were even asked to sit in a guy’s lap I would have refused.

However, I definitely understand the pressure girls (and guys too, of course) may have faced going through these activities, and being almost forced to strip or lie down for a guy to do push ups over in the interest of helping a group to win a challenge or game.

And for those things specifically, I absolutely agree those camps’ organisers crossed the line and sincerely hope that never happens to anyone ever again.

I don’t think anyone should be forced — or feel forced, for that matter — to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing, no matter how mild one might perceive the innuendo involved to be.

I was discussing this with some university friends over the weekend when we met, and one told me that during his hall camp, he would always check with the girl he was being asked to do *insert compromising action* with if she was okay with it first, and be gentle and careful about whatever it was they had to do.

And as provocative as that sentence can sound, I really think that’s the most important thing about anything anyone wants to do when planning or carrying out an FOC. Be aware of where the boundaries are, and don’t make your kids do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing especially when it’s overtly sexual in nature.

It’s hugely unfortunate, I must say, that FOCs have gotten such a bad name in recent years because there’s so much they can offer someone who is going into university — especially for the first time.

And triggered by what appears to me to be a rising and disturbingly “anti-FOC” sentiment, I’d like to explain why I think a prospective freshman should absolutely still go:

1. It’s the quickest way to make friends.

A no-brainer, but bears mentioning. The first friends you make are at FOC — your batch mates as well as your seniors.

Certainly, the friends I made at FOC were the ones I hung out with in the first week of my first semester, and longer after of course, but as soon as our disciplines, areas of specialisation (e.g. I focused on TV news, film production, documentaries, and later on journalism as well, while other friends went into research, and many others into PR and Advertising) come in, that’s where our paths and social circles diverged.

That’s me (half obscured) with my arms around my fellow programmer Adeline, leading a mass dance I choreographed for the camp. (Photo by and courtesy of Foo Chee Chang)

And if you’re someone who doesn’t make friends easily, FOC is a good way in — you’re forced into a group of about 18 or so people you most likely don’t already know and in five days, you’ll have likely:

  • seen and be seen drenched, or with egg or starch in your hair or on your clothes,
  • danced with someone you’ve only just met,
  • (for guys) seen one another shirtless and (for girls) screamed together showering in ice-cold water at the common cubicles,
  • lost your voices trying to out-cheer the weirdest things to your rival groups, and
  • had various clothed body parts (backsides, armpits, shoulders, foreheads) touch or be separated only by fragile items like balloons.

The list goes on, but you get the idea — experiences of “strife” and these sorts of “torture” you wouldn’t be willing to put up with anywhere else definitely foster bonds in groups of young strangers in a short time.

2. It’s the most strategic way to learn what’s what in school.

Even if you’re a utilitarian individual who doesn’t need friends at school, the opportunity to befriend seniors is a valuable one you shouldn’t dismiss.

Thinking about this in a completely utilitarian way (and I don’t kay, to this day I still keep very friendly contact with my juniors, batch mates and especially seniors, particularly those in my industry), seniors can give you pro-tips to pretty much everything in university life — where the best food is (during my time, NOT Canteen B), where or who to borrow or “inherit” or buy textbooks from, which photocopy uncle is willing to close one eye (or maybe two) about the 10 per cent rule (and I will not say which), and which courses are more useful or, ahem, boring.

All these just off the top of my head.

Who wouldn’t want a life as smooth as that? The ability to avoid wasting time on — depending on what you’re striving for in school — modules that are a bad idea for your GPA; tutorial slots with not-so-great teachers; courses many regret taking.

The perfect STARS clicking technique in order to get into the classes you want (I can’t speak for the bidders in NUS, or the way modules are selected in SMU, SUSS, SUSD and everywhere else, but I’m sure they also would have benefited from advice from seniors). Which countries are best to consider going on exchange to (if you have the means to; I didn’t). Whether and where one should do an internship during the summer. Even which company offers a good internship for the professional area you hope to enter upon graduation.

3. Going for FOC builds bonds & long-term friendships

Two of us in front are batchmates from the same FOC group, and the two guys behind are our OGL and AGL. We gathered for this photo at a camp held at the end of our third year and the end of their final year — our fourth and their fifth FOCs respectively. (Photo courtesy of Zakaria Zainal)

If you allow yourself to let loose, not take yourself too seriously and enjoy yourself at them, FOCs are great fun and can build immense school loyalty and bonding. And from what I’ve been through, I can only say it is these meaningful experiences that bring multiple batches of more than 30 seniors back to FOCs again and again, year after year.

And they often form lasting friendships across batches, too — my friendships with many of the folks from NTU who attended my wedding last year (seven years after graduation, no less) started at FOC: my first year for some, and the later ones I was involved in for others.

I also feel a special pride seeing freshies whom I personally tekan-ed as a senior, or even just befriended or taught a silly game to during their camp, coming back to lead, organise, just get involved, and even teach the same silly games and cheers at their juniors’ camps.

And so, with all this in mind, I conclude that

It’s possible to run a (really awesome) FOC that doesn’t involve sexualised activity, poses or chants. And it is also perfectly okay to say “no” if you don’t want to do something, even if you choose to go for FOC.

In my experience participating in, organising and kaypoh-ing in camps throughout my university years, I know there are many creative ways to do fun things and have fun games, or even carry out forfeits, without involving sexual harassment.

But the fact is, you aren’t going to be able to run away from them completely — it’ll slip in from time to time for sure, no matter how many new guidelines, reviews or rules are put in place by our universities.

So yes, there are parts of any FOC you attend that would have some sexual innuendo (or some that lack even that subtlety) — some camps will have more of this than others, too. Therefore, the key to it is really to make sure you are comfortable before doing whatever it is you are being asked to do; if not, don’t do it. Simple as that. No one can kick you out of camp for being firm about your principles.

What I’m ultimately saying is, don’t let your fear of getting stuck in awkward situations deter you from going for orientation camp, and try not to let your parents convince you that it’s too dangerous to go either.

Going to university is a huge change no matter where you’re coming from — in different ways, of course, but big nonetheless — and spending five days getting to know people and getting an idea of what university life is going to be like (whether it’s hall, your university course or a co-curricular activity) will pay off in great ways, especially if you’re open to them.

Top photos courtesy of Jeanette’s old friends, which she took more time digging up and asking for permission to use than actually writing this piece.

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to "Hakuna Matata" and a host of other Disney songs. She is also enslaved to Katherine, George and Heidi, her three cats.

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