My thoughts were wandering again, reminiscing of days gone by. I left the comfort of my home, sleepy hometown, Sungai Petani and travelled overseas for the 1st time albeit just across a strait, to the city state of Singapore for my tertiary education.
I was nervous and apprehensive at the prospect of studying in another country. Truth be told, I was actually reluctant to separate from my new found love of life. I had no choice but to go forth. Luckily, I was accompanied by my primary school mate who had been to Singapore 2 years prior. So I was not alone in my journey. We travelled over night by bus and alighted at Bukit Timah Plaza the next dawn.
We boarded a taxi for National University of Singapore at Kent Ridge for the NUS Orientation Program, which admittedly I did not have any fond recollections of, only the usual “hi & bye”, sing-a-long and course introduction.
We then headed for our boarding hall of residence, Raffles Hall along Nassim Road, our new home away from home, tucked amongst lush greeneries behind Botanic Gardens. Did I say new? Well, Raffles Hall was already 25 years old then. I was made to remember that along with other facts, like Reuben Manasseh and Sir William Goode.
We were met by some senior residents who called themselves “Freshmen Welcoming Orientation Committee” (FWOC), and were immediately secreted into our respective rooms for briefing before joining the rest of the residents. I was directed to my room. Lo and behold, my room-mate was already there. We were briefly introduced but he quickly added that he will not be staying as he was unwilling to be subjected to the orientation program. I was puzzled. I had heard rumours and horror stories, but hey it can’t be that bad. We were civilised undergraduates in pursuit of our dreams in the finest institution in the country, and I had just come from one orientation program.
We were given the choice to participate in the orientation program and stay or opt out and leave. Not much of a choice as we had no idea what was installed. Further, most of us were still in the state of shock and had yet to recover our wits. Some just could not afford alternative accommodation. We took comfort that ragging was strictly prohibited, yeah, right.
Anyway, we were the 1st yearlings, newbies, greenhorns or freshmen (freshies & freshettes). We were required to get to know the name, course and hometown of every senior and freshman in quick time. Other information to commit to memory included personal particulars of Resident Fellows, JCRC members, FWOC members and RH history were keys to surviving verbal diatribes from some more sadistic seniors. There were always some prowling around the corner, ready to prey on stragglers. Surprisingly, the nastier ones would become our bosom friends thereafter.
Three square meals daily, breakfast, lunch and dinner, must be taken in the company of seniors, never alone or amongst freshmen only. Tea sessions included. Dress code was always smart casual/formal throughout the day, except during mandatory morning and evening exercise sessions, which were occasionally conducted in formal dress code. We were to greet the seniors first in a gentlemanly or ladylike manner at all times, even a senior baby Jenli, a senior dog and some senior pillars. Geez.
We raised funds for charity during NUS Rag & Flag Day, and if my memory serves me correctly, RH came in top amongst the halls of residence for the largest amount collected that year. I also remembered I was almost left behind at Bukit Timah Plaza without any pick-up arrangement back to RH. Mobile phones were not invented yet. I had no idea of the bus route/system then. I found the nearest bus stop, and sat there. I was lost and desperate.
Thankfully, heaven took pity on me, I guess. I was waiting at the right bus stop along the right route/direction at the right time. Almost immediately, I caught a glimpse of some passengers in our orientation’s fiery red T-shirt on an oncoming bus, SBS 170. They were my seniors on their way back. I almost became the biblical lost sheep of RH.
O yes, how could I forget the songs, forbidden lyrics sang in familiar tunes. Not your usual serenading sing song session. The lyrics were charming, amusing, uncouth, abrasive, loud and emotional all the time. We were being drummed up for war. We were going to war.
We engaged in a few preparatory 1-1 skirmishes before the mother of all battles scheduled immediately after the inter-hostel games.
On that fateful dusk, almost 2,000 strong from 5 halls of residence converged on the field of Kent Ridge, in full battle array, staring each other down daring the other to fire the 1st salvo. All were ready and tense. The atmosphere was highly charged and volatile. The air was asphyxiating yet electrifying.
Suddenly, as if invisibly commanded, all fury let loose, and the battle songs crescendo-ed across the battle field. Insults were hurled and secret bombs unleashed, all verbal, all decibel, all lyrics, all song, and yes we were in the song fight of our lives. Victory was claimed by the loudest and longest, and of course, needless to say, RH celebrated victory that night, our seniors mighty proud.
In one of the more memorable rites of passage, we were all baptised in the drain running beside RH valley. Some lucky ones with the full complement of the infamous 21-gun salute reserved actually for those turning 21 only. Most also opted to have the royal flush, and I must bragged I got flushed twice. For the uninformed, royal flush is flushing your head in a toilet bowl. A hand stand position is preferred to avoid drowning. Drowning is a possibility if one’s head blocked the outlet. As for 21-gun salute, I shall leave that to your imagination. As a clue, it is a ritual for males only.
For the grand finale, we were ferried to St. John’s Island for an overnight camp, more akin to an all expense paid, once in a lifetime concentration camp experience for posterity. We were deprived of sleep and subjected to verbal abuse throughout the night, to drain and break us, so that we can experience re-birth through final baptism at sea the next dawn into a fully fledged RHafflesians. Just like the mythological phoenix of old rising from its ashes. No more freshmen-senior divide, we were all RHafflesians. That was what we were told.
Looking back, I must admit, it worked at least for me. Bonds and friendships forged and moulded in adversity, even scripted ones like the RH orientation then, were both enduring and endearing.
“Raffles, the greatest in the whole country, let’s go, go, go
Raffles, one strong and mighty family, onward we shall go
R A F F L E S, Raffles is the best, Hoi!
Raffles, the greatest in the whole country, let’s go, go, go”
We were one strong & mighty family.