RH Orientation 83/84 was drawing to a close. Freshmen were both excited and anxious. Their ordeal would be over soon, only St. John’s Island stood in the way. They were on their way to an overnight grand finale camp on the island for some well-deserved R&R after almost 3 weeks of grueling if not brutal Orientation.
St. John’s Island is the tranquil and idyllic weekend getaway for many city dwellers. It boasts of pristine beaches, picnic grounds and lush trekking routes. It is the largest of Singapore’s Southern islands. It is located some 6.5km south of Main Singapore Island. The Island was reputed to be Stamford Raffles’ first anchorage during the founding days of Singapore. It had served as the quarantine screening center for early migrants, leprosy and contagious disease isolation centre, penal settlement and even drug rehabilitation center at one time or the other in its short dark history. More fascinatingly, it is still reputed to be haunted.
St. John’s Island Rendezvous promised to be a jam packed fun filled experience. So they hoped. Guess no harm in hoping even in falsehood then. But like we always mocked loudly behind mischievous smiles at RH, “Hope laa!”
The Rendezvous was actually an all expense paid once in a lifetime vacation in a concentration camp. It promised to be an enlightening camp, life changing imbued with life and death experience, for the restless and sleepless with no-breaks non-stop itinerary. Well, in truth, it was more akin to an incarceration on a penal island far away from civilization without any hope of escape. Lock them up and throw the keys away.
Freshmen would deliberately be subjected to sleep deprivation and unceasing interrogation throughout the night into the wee hours of the next morn. Both were intended to shock and awe them, to drain and break them, so that they can and only then experience a true spiritual re-birth after enduring an almost real physical death. The intense euphoric experience when they re-surface from the final baptism at sea the next dawn was expected to sear permanently onto their memories for posterity. Just like the mythological twin headed phoenix of Raffles which would only rise from its ashes. Yeah right, who were they trying to kid for it was torture no less.
After lunch, freshmen gathered on the patio for roll call and final checks. Buses were already waiting along Nassim Road. They were obviously not looking forward to this camp despite the promises of abundant fun and sun, sand and sea. They were just resigned to whatever fate was installed for them. They queued and boarded the buses lugging their overnight bags despite being informed that there would be no sleeping that night.
They were meek and compliant like sheep led to the slaughter house. They pondered despondently. Even the vociferous ones were muted in deep thoughts. The wind in their hair and faces lulled many to sleep. Arriving at Clifford Pier, they alighted reluctantly, and waited forebodingly for the ferry.
Distant rumbles of the diesel engine announced the arrival of the ferry. As the ferry drew nearer, the rumbles from its engine sounded ominous in the ferry terminal. They queued up silently, heads bowed and shoulders slumped to board the ferry. Their footfalls were listless and leaden.
Soon, the diesel engine powered up and the ferry plowed into the waves. The sea was rather choppy that bright humid afternoon. Some pretended to sleep, others whispered mutedly, and many just stared blankly at the waves. Not too few were muttering silent prayers.
The ferry made a short stopover at Kusu Island. The island is named after the magical “tortoise” or “turtle” in Chinese which according to legend turned itself into an island to save shipwrecked sailors. At its highest peak on a rugged hillock stand three Malay holy shrines or Kramats where devotees to pray for wealth, good marriage, good health and harmony, and for the childless, children. Also located on the island is the popular Chinese Da Bo Gong 大伯公 and Guan Yin 观音 (Goddess of Mercy) temple which is highly regarded as having the power to confer prosperity, cure diseases, calm the sea and avert danger. Some took the opportunity to pay a quick homage and send last minute prayers for courage to face whatever awaited them on St. John’s Island and for safe return.
With the blare of its horns, the ferry departed from Kusu Island for nearby St. John’s Island. It was a short trip. Soon, the ferry was powering down and maneuvering to berth alongside the pier at St. John’s Island. The rubber tyres secured along the port and starboard sides of the ferry cushioned the berthing bumps. Port side ropes were quickly secured to the pier’s bollards. They alighted and step onto St. John’s Island. They had arrived.
They trudged unenthusiastically towards the dormitories. The sight of dormitories which were rather old with Spartan facilities was rather disheartening to the already depressed freshmen. They dumped their baggage beside the beds which they were not going to sleep on anyway. In any case, there were only 60 beds and they were more than 200-strong.
They quickly were changed into PT attire, formed ranks and were soon warming up before jogging around the island, singing and chanting, and full of sweats. This was followed by a short rest and quick dinner. For the life of me, I could not recall what was for dinner or whether dinner was served that evening. Must be amnesia from the nightmarish PSTD suffered.
Freshmen were then lined up along the bed footers facing another across the aisle in hushed attention. They were still in the evening’s sweat drenched PT attire, their bodies dirty and sticky, and body odor aplenty. The dormitory stank mightily that night. Seniors paced up and down the aisle, like ravenous wolves prowling menacingly, their expressions grim eyes ruthless. The atmosphere was deadly and terrifying. Indeed, the freshmen were like sheep in the midst of wolves. The slaughter was about to be unleashed.
Freshmen were required during the preceding 3 weeks, as if their lives depended on them, to get to know and commit to memory the name, course and hometown of every senior and freshman in quick time and also pertinent particulars of Resident Fellows, JCRC members, FWOC members and RH history.
Questions were fielded actually shouted aloud by the FWOC Chairman. Following each question, seniors would prowl around and pick on some unfortunate souls. Every freshman was fair game. Cold sweats, dilated pupils and avoidance of eyes contact were clear giveaways and sure signs of the weakness, a predator magnet for even blur skiving senior.
Indeed, they were like predatory wolves prowling around defenseless sheep and preying on only the weak ones. Once they locked in on their prey, they would put their ears near the unfortunate freshmen who were required to quickly whisper the answer. Wrong answers would earn verbal diatribe, and if verbal attacks drew blood, the dormitory would be drenched in blood that night. The Q&A grilling more akin to interrogation went on for hours into the wee hours.
Seconds crawled into minutes, minutes into hours. Time seemed to slow down, especially for the tormented freshmen. They were in no doubt defeated, no fire in their eyes, all defiance chipped away and most truly broken. Totally exhausted, synapses roasted and adrenaline ran its course, they stood numbed and almost dead zombie-like.
Then at the stroke of midnight, suddenly as if divine, a waft of cool refreshing salty breeze drifted through the dormitory. The oppressive mood was suddenly lifted and the grim expressions turned friendly. Relief welled up. It was over. They survived.
Next, freshmen jogged towards the beach. They formed up in two ranks on the beach, arms linked tightly together. After the night’s torment, freshmen learnt to appreciate, to draw comfort and pleasure from, little things in life. The cool sands below their feet felt most soothing. The light breeze felt most refreshingly sweet on their sweaty faces. They valued the camaraderie of their fellow freshmen.
In unison, they treaded forward and waded into the calm sea. It was a still, cold and very dark pre-dawn, and it was true that the heaven was darkest before dawn, beautiful no less. They could hardly see one another, only vague dark shadows in darkness. Even the stars were hiding behind the heavenly curtain. Singapore’s shoreline was a dim lit line in the distant horizon. The sea was calm. Only sound from the gentle waves lapping the beach, soothing music no less.
However, despite having the worst behind them, not too few still turned apprehensive and restless. Their lips shivered muted prayers, their pupils dilated unseeing. They were petrified with fear. Incapacitated by fear, they could only swallow their dry saliva and closed their eyes, and allow their rigid bodies be dragged along into the water.
Their heart beats were galloping. Water rose from ankle to knee to waist. They swallowed their screams. Yet, the ranks ploughed deeper. A few faint hearted were about to break ranks. Their pounding hearts were at their throats. The water rose to chest deep and gratefully they stopped. Alas some were aquaphobic and not too few were nyctophobic.
All were shivering by then mostly from the cold and not too few from fear. They stood still arms locked in ranks staring yonder towards the dark horizon for what seemed to be eternity Then in unison, they dipped below the surface in water baptism, to renounce their freshmen status and to experience re-birth as Rafflesians. The old had passed away, buried and the new re-born. A few gagged and coughed up seawater. They were too mesmerized by the moment that they momentarily forgot not to breathe underwater. It was indeed a very spiritual experience, very surreal.
A quick change into dry clothes, they gathered around for a pre-dawn camp fire for sing-a-long and pep talk session. Again, for the life of me, I could not recall the words of wisdom exhorted then. I was probably dozing off like many.
Anyway, St. John’s Island Rendezvous wrote the final chapter the following year. It was also the only year when a few unfortunate seniors inadvertently exposed their manhood when some fortunate “freshettes” rushed into the communal bathroom they were showering in. They were fortunately stark naked but unfortunately covered in suds, or so they bragged. Shrieks of shock or was it thrill from both sides of the bathroom did indeed pierced the early pre-dawn, followed by swearing from within and giggling from without, or was it the other way around. Finally, for the life of me, I could not remember whether I was one of the fortunate or unfortunate few?