Malaysiakini - Thank God for St John's
My matey Dean Johns wrote the above delightful piece, which brought back nostalgic memories for a couple of my uncles who served as officers in the military. Incidentally I come from a family where many of its male members served at one stage or another in the police and military (including the British army during colonial days) - in fact, one of my granduncles serving in the SB during Emergency was killed by the Malayan Communist Party.
The part Dean wrote which attracted them was what the University of Malaya called ‘orientation’ (obviously for freshies) (as related by family members who attended the institution). Dean’s version was more akin to the military form of ‘orientation’ which was unofficially called ‘ragging’, apparently a term used in most Commonwealth countries as it was one of those underground culture inherited from British public schools*.
* By the by, do not be misled by the British term ‘public school’ when they are really very exclusive schools like Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, etc. They’re ‘public’ in the sense they’re open to any members of the public PROVIDED the applicant can PASS the entrance exams and PAY the dues. They were termed ‘public’ because they (theoretically) do not bar anyone like schools for local residents or schools associated with churches and thus meant for followers of the faith.
As usual, the Yanks just have to spoil it with a 'ragging' word of their own, namely, ‘hazing’.
Dean wrote on St John’s College which he attended in the 1960’s as follows [extracts]:
‘Institution' being an entirely appropriate description of the place, as it proved to be more like an open prison or low-security lunatic asylum than most would expect of Sydney University's residential college for male Catholic students.:
Rather than the civilised and cloistered centre of scholarship to which my parents fondly believed they were committing me, and which in my relative innocence I also expected, it proved to be a hotbed of alcoholic anarchy.
Drunk with potable intoxicants or power or both, seniors and sophomores subjected us newcomers to a system of so-called ‘fresher*-bashing', purportedly for the purpose of initial ‘initiation' into the institution, but in practice unrelentingly for the entire first year.
* presumably same meaning as Malaysian ‘freshie’
I have to admit that, despite the ominous word ‘bashing', the plethora of indignities and insults we freshers were subjected to stopped short of actual physical assault*.
* alas, not the case in other countries as deaths had resulted from ragging. For example, in Indonesia, more than 30 people had died from such ‘ragging’ in their public institutions over the last 15 years [obviously ‘ragging, as we would see, is not just a university program for newly admitted undergraduates]. Due to similar fatalities in Indian universities, the Indian High Court has pronounced ragging as a criminal activity.
But short of beatings and waterboardings, we experienced virtually every refinement of Abu Ghraib-style physical and psychological intimidation a sick mind could imagine.
The one I recall with particular fondness is being regularly woken in the middle of the night by drunken revellers and being ordered to clamber up the inside of my room's old stone chimney far enough to escape the worst of the heat from sheets of newspaper that my would-be tormentors set alight in the fireplace, and at the same time being required to sing the old Platters hit Smoke gets in your eyes. [...]
Among the initiation practices mentioned in the Herald article were many that have apparently been instituted since my time, including penis-measuring, underwear wrestling and naked leap-frog.
Not that I recall it as all doom and gloom. Shared suffering being a powerful bond, we freshers quickly became great mates in misery, and thus, five decades later, my room-mate at St John's, Phil Gibbs, remains one of my closest and most cherished friends. And, thanks to either the resilience of youth or a touch of masochism in my mental make-up, I found lots of the fresher-bashing activities not so much fearsome as loads of fun.
This seems to be a commonly expressed sentiments by those who had undergone ragging (for example, my uncles and cousins), that with the advantage of hindsight they believe it was enjoyable with some beneficial outcomes, though of course the lamentable occurrence of deaths would pose an embarrassing question on the rationality of their conclusions, and thus curtailed any open support of the ‘orientation’ programs.
In the armed forces, ragging at military academies/colleges is an unofficial but quietly condoned activity for new cadets, run by senior cadets (and never instructors), because military history-culture believes the following benefits could be achieved:
(a) to ‘break the ice’ for the new cadets, as well as project equal treatment of all newcomers regardless of their backgrounds, rich or poor, urban or rural, creed, colour, etc. Though the overt message of ragging seems to be “new cadets are all worthless shit!” wakakaka, the more important underlying text is that all (potential) officers, regardless of their backgrounds, will be treated equally - basically military shock treatment, especially for those from rich pampered backgrounds.
(b) to encourage team spirit and what the military loves, espirit de corp. If carefully and cleverly managed by senior cadets (and advised by instructors) the new cadets could be tasked to perform almost apparently impossible tasks but which with cooperation among themselves, can be achieved.
(c) to encourage ‘initiative’, the military’s fave phrase for new officers.
(d) most important of all, to ‘break up’ the original make-up of the cadet (rich, poor, arrogant, shy, etc) and ‘rebuild’ him/her into the person the military wants to see in its officer.
Unfortunately sometimes things went wrong because of an individual’s lack of judgement, alcoholic haze (maybe that’s how the Yanks came by that 'hazing' word instead of ‘ragging’) or the raggers losing the plot (the intended objectives of ragging/orientation), and consequently some new cadets were hurt or victimized.
In 2007, Muhammad Hazim Ahmad Azman, an air force cadet at the RMAF base in Alor Setar, was repeatedly abused, physically and mentality. This was considered bullying rather than ragging though the illegal authority and facility for the bullies to do so were under the mantle of ‘orientating’ junior cadets. They were charged and three years later fined by the courts.
But a far more serious case resulting in death occurred in 1982 at RMAF Kuching when Leftenant Muda (Udara) [2nd Lieutenant (Air)] Sugudev Dass died as a consequence of ragging. Apparently there was some ‘rough house’ involved during the ragging and he suffered from slow internal bleeding caused by a kick to his side. No one including the victim himself knew about the bleeding, and when the ragging was over he went back to his room to sleep but the bleeding continued and caused his death. Sadly, he didn't wake up again.
His father wrote a letter directly to HM the Agong appealing for justice. My uncles aren’t too sure what subsequently happened.
Now, you may wonder why ragging occurred after military college at an operational base like TUDM Kuching?
According to my uncles this was a carry-over from Konfrontasi days when RMAF officers (mostly from Peninsula) serving in the ‘frontier’ bases of Kuching and Labuan, ‘away from civilization’ so to speak, had their rough & tumble ways of inducting new comers (of ranks up to Major or, in those early days, Squadron Leaders) into their ‘wild & woolly’ company. Invariably, due to easy and cheap access to tax-free alcohol (and cigarettes) at military camps in Kuching and Labuan, the induction involved alcohol.
The grand finalé of the induction program was imbibing the notorious ‘Kuching Special’ (TUDM Labuan then didn’t have a ‘special’). The ‘Kuching Special’ was a deadly cocktail made up of 1 tot each of whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, rum, port, and a dash of soya and tomato sauce, and topped up with beer, stout and orange cordial (no water added). My uncle told me some could drink the brew while most vomited before they finished it; a few fell unconscious after bravely gulping it. It's a miracle no one died from drinking the lot.
But then, after such a night of comradeship boozing ending with a ‘Special’, that was that.
As the years went by, the induction program transformed gradually into a more abusive version of ‘military academy-style’ ragging but with the ranks of the inductee being reduced down to only leftenant muda (2nd lieutenant) and leftenant (lieutenant).
My uncle drew my attention to a delightful memoir of a TUDM officer who faithfully recorded his ragging experience as a young leftenant muda (udara). Lt Muda (Udara) Toharudin Abd Rashid writes in both Bahasa and what he describes as his ‘kampung English’ but let me say, disregarding the finer issues of the English language, he writes extremely well, and is very clear about what he has to say. I sense in him a humble and humorous man who come across to me as a Malaysian typical of military officers of the armed forces’ earlier years, where they were Malaysians first and foremost.
Despite the sad event of Lt Muda (Udara) Sugudev Dass, Lt Muda (Udara) Toharudin Abd Rashid said of the ragging: The ragging was very tough. It made the brotherhood or relationship among the officers very closed and adhered.
The ‘espirit de corp’ I mentioned earlier, and a somewhat similar feeling to what Dean Johns had expressed as ‘Shared suffering being a powerful bond, we freshers quickly became great mates in misery’.
Before I provide the link to his post for you to read the relevant extract (under section heading ‘Ragging and Kuching Special’), I thought it would be best to explain a couple of items he wrote. When he mentioned ‘Bat C 10’ under the subsection ‘Night Compass Marching’ he was referring to the military identity card. BAT is abbreviation for Borang Angkatan Tentera, where every document and form used in the military has a BAT number.
And also, when he wrote: ‘The newly reporting officer will be addressed as 'BUGI', while he was phonetically correct, he actually meant ‘BOGEY’, where ‘bogey’ is an air force term meaning an unidentified aircraft or missile, especially one detected as a blip on a radar screen. The TUDM Kuching ragging insinuation was that a new Lt Muda (Udara) or Lt (Udara) was still an unidentified officer (or comrade), thus bogey, until he had undergone the rites of passage.
Now, what do we mean by ‘rites of passage’?
They are rites or ceremonies that mark important transitional periods in a person's life, such as becoming a full fledged member of a fraternity, like an air force or university group.
Thus rites of passage usually involve ritual activities (ragging) and teachings designed to strip individuals of their original roles and prepare them for new roles. I mentioned this process above as one of the desired/expected and most important objectives of ragging, namely, to ‘break up’ the original make-up of the cadet (rich, poor, arrogant, shy, etc) and ‘rebuild’ him/her into the person the military wants to see in its officer.
Now, read and enjoy what Lt Muda (Udara) Toharudin Abd Rashid has to say about his experience as a ‘bogey’ in the air force style of ragging at MILITARY LIFE PT 3: RMAF KUCHING.