Humans are social creatures. They seek acceptance, they seek companionship and they seek adulation. Adolescence is that awkward time in life where a youth, no longer considered a child yet not fully accepted as a grown up, stands at the cusp of adulthood tethering over the edge and tries to steer his or her inevitable free fall towards a desired position in society. As one passes from one phase of life to another, there is often a juncture where they are tested before they are accepted into the community.
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The Rites of Passage
In almost all groups of people, from those living in a major metropolis to those dwelling in mud and thatch huts found deep within jungles, there is a predetermined time when adolescents are subjected to rites of passage. Traditionally, many Asian cultures also held coming of age rituals to mark this significant transition in one’s life.
To our grandmothers and even mothers, the hair pinning ceremony was once commonly performed in Hokkien communities, to signify that she had become an adult – usually at around 15 years of age. The Teochews, also had their unique set of practices which required participants to bite on the head of a chicken.
For boys becoming men, military service has long been seen as a threshold for adulthood; a perception that has persisted into the present day. For the first time in their lives, they are subjected to tests of mental and physical endurance such as mock torture sessions and drinking snake’s blood, without the option to voice any objection. Even those who maintained stiff resistance to military life and culture remember the experience as a defining moment, analogous to the aptly named Jack Neo hit, “Ah Boys to Men”.
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In more modern traditions acceptance into society is marked by legal privileges such as drinking, smoking and the age legal consent. As such, many 18th or 21st birthdays around the world are sordid affairs marked with copious amounts of alcohol drinking in a test of how capable or worthy the person is of this new entitlement. It is also customary for family members or friends to assemble embarrassing photos, videos or other childhood memorabilia to display at a celebration and for a good friend to give an equally embarrassing speech.
Similarly, such rites of passage where an individual has to endure tests before being included into a community, can be found in other setting such as religions, business, academic or social fraternities. The subject, having demonstrated the requisite qualities such as bravery, discipline, perseverance or humility is then deemed ready to face the challenges of this new phase of life.
Making the Cut as part of the Tribe
Education as a milestone and societal differentiator has also been fraught with its own tradition of initiation rites. This has commonly taken the form of what is known as hazing. There are three stages of an initiation rite of passage. The first serves to separate and dissociate the participant from their current status or position in life.
This is synonymous with the practices in army boot camp where each recruit’s hair is shaven in the same style and is given the same design of clothing. The next step is the transition phase, during which the participant is indoctrinated or trained with the desired characteristics and tested on it. Those who pass the tests of the previous stage, then proceed to the final phase of incorporation. Having successfully completed the rite and assumed a “new” identity, one re-enters society with an elevated status.
The purpose of such rituals is to build solidarity and group identity. It is for this reason that those organising and those participating often do so with a great deal of zeal and vigour. It is not uncommon that the enthusiasm sometimes goes overboard. It is when the activities devolve into bullying, taunting or have deviated so much from its intended purpose that it has to be reined in by a neutral authority.
When Fun and Games Get Out of Hand
The charity event, Rag and Flag Day, organised by the National University of Singapore Student’s Union (NUSSU)5 is a long standing activity originally conceived of altruistic intentions that has come under scrutiny. It is an example of the two types of pressure that a new inductee can face.
On one hand, there is type that school authorities can control, such as the guidelines that can curtail or empower a student leader. And on the other, there is the type that the administration are not able to have a handle on, such as the social stigma that one has to face if he or she refuses to participate at all. In this instance, this form of bully can take on a passive aggressive form where the student is ostracised from campus life or finds it difficult to find friendly companionship.
This is where a soft touch approach should be adopted. A university cannot dictate how a person behaves or treats others but, it can create an environment and culture that is more inclusive. This all comes down to education and shaping minds, and isn’t that what school is all about?
(Photo: Genuine Witty)
The instituted form of bullying such as the recent case of lewd gutter games being forced upon freshmen at an orientation camp at the local University. This form is immediately incumbent on the Academic faculty to police, control and condemn. All too often, ambivalence is hidden behind hallowed tradition and the abuses are allowed to continue by those who should have been monitoring and protecting the vulnerable.
There should be a system of oversight to review the objectives and conduct of all orientation activities. Above all else, it should not violate the modesty, injure the pride or threaten the physical well being of a participant. This should be the prevailing tenet held to the highest standard, above all pretext of unity, bonding and social cohesion.
With the changing times, university rites of passage which have frequently hidden behind the secrecy of tradition and organisational culture to ensure its continuation is now being scrutinised and monitored for infractions of respectable behaviour.
There have also been initiatives at educating students on the myths and facts of hazing, so that freshmen are better able to tell what is acceptable or not. And, being able to discern right from wrong and standing up for it is the true hallmark of graduating from adolescence to adulthood.