Plonco, Ospek, Hazing

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The death of IPDN student is not surprising. In Indonesia, seniority is very much embedded into local education culture. I began to sense this when I enter junior high school, and as I moved up onto higher education in Indonesia, the sense of seniority is felt even more.

It is customary to go through rites of passage / initiation rites when one enter a new school in Indonesia, as well as entering extracurricular organizations in school. This initiation rite is governed by a basic rule that the seniors has more authority than the juniors, and that the juniors has less rights than the seniors. Oh I just found out from wikipedia that there is an English word for “plonco” and “ospek” which is “hazing“. In the developed countries, hazing is considered as crime, and students involved in it are sent to jail. Wow, in this regards, Indonesia is so behind!

Let’s go back to the hazing culture in Indonesia. The unwritten rules are to never question your seniors, and that the seniors always know better. And don’t talk to your seniors unless they talk to you first.

Basically, during the first few months in the new school, you have to keep yourself low profile. Otherwise, you are considered as “sinned” and those sins are going to be used against you during the initiation day. But who measures the standard for being low profile? It’s the seniors, of course. Anything can be used against you. One of my friend, who is really beautiful, attracted a lot of attention of male seniors, and therefore she had sinned. As for me, I was always eager to get to learn about new things as I enter new school, and this eagerness is also considered as “sin”. I was judged as “acting up”, and of course, during initiation day, it was used against me. You are not supposed to be different from the crowd, or else, you’ve sinned. No matter what, the juniors are always wrong. This does not fit into common sense and logic, but what the heck, it’s the tradition!

There is too much of these initiation rites that I started to question what is the purpose of all those. There is a rite upon entering junior high school; then again, upon entering an extracurricular organization in junior high, then three years later, the same repeats itself in high school. And then when one enters the university, there is several layers of rites, first, at the university level, and then at faculty level, and then at department level. I was lucky to only get through a series “reasonable” rites – at least no one is injured or died in the process. Although come to think of it now, I think many of the stunts performed during the rites did not yield any benefit for my later adult life. Or, that many of the “goals that are intended to be achieved by the stunts” can actually be achieved without having to subjugate oneself under the seniors’ authority. One thing common in those rites is the quasi-military style presentation: standing in line, marching together in rows, keeping your eyesight down, be totally obedient, and never protest, never talk back, no matter what the seniors do to you.

What are those stunts? From my experience, it ranges from stupid to really unreasonable things. Among the stupid things are:

  • to put on silly costumes:
  • to do physical exercise: push-ups, sit-ups. It is argued that these are done to keep the body warm.
  • to drink and eat disgusting stuff: a mix of cereal with noodle and bitter herbal medicine was really disgusting for some people. Luckily I have high tolerance of disgusting food.
  • to parrot whatever your senior tells you to say and do: “I’m really ugly” “How poor I am”

Among the unreasonable thing (which I cannot understand the purpose) are:

  • to be deprived from human rights, as announced by the seniors at the beginning of the initiation rite: “your human rights are taken away, and you’re all under our authority!”. Who are they to take away our rights?
  • to bear with the verbal abuse from the senior: “You’re a slut!” “You’re ugly” “You’re stupid!” “You’re only trying to attract male senior’s attention” (which is all lies, but of course, no use to protest during initiation rite)
  • to bear with (light) physical abuse from the seniors: my hair got pulled, my t-shirt got pulled by a drunken senior. But no physical harm was done.
  • to eat my fellow junior’s booger, to lick my fellow junior’s armpit
  • to literally eat dirt and mud from the forest ground.

I was lucky to only experience those things (at least there was no physical violence). I also have heard stories from other people on how initiation rites were done in their experience, ranging from stupid to unreasonable.
Among the stupid things are:

  • To walk in a dark mortuary with seniors posing as dead body.
  • To bring a dead chicken painted in yellow and having lipstick on the beak
  • To go to a traffic light and take photo when the light turn yellow and red at the same time

Among the unreasonable things:

  • Seniors spit into a bottle of tea and the juniors are supposed to drink it
  • To bury the lower body of the juniors, then kill a rabbit or chicken on top of their head, letting the blood flow onto the juniors’ body.
  • In IPDN, all seniors spit and put their mucus into a bowl and the juniors are supposed to drink it.
  • Of course, the verbal abuse, seniors screaming nonsense right besides the juniors ears
  • And of course, the physical abuse (“punishment”) that ranges from soft ones (slapping, hair pulling) to very harsh ones (kicking, being stepped on). As I remember, even ITB had two students died from initiation rites. And of course, IPDN allegedly has 35 dead victims, according to Inu Kencana. I remember during my time in my university, I heard that two students became hysterical and had to be sent to insane asylum. Of course, those cases never made it into big media, and furthermore it was still the Soeharto era, where the media are restricted.
  • And I’m sure there are many more examples, which never get into public. But it’s a public secret in Indonesia. Everybody knows about it, and it’s the culture, but nobody takes action about it. It’s given, and it’s the norm.

Oddly, the students felt really strong to be able to pass the stupid initiation rites, including me, at that time. There is a sense of achievement, which is stupid, because all the stunts done, and all the seniors’ rage, are all dramas and fake.

Let’s see it from the perspective of the seniors. Why do they do this kind of thing? Well, at least in my experience being one of the senior later on, it was agreed that it was the seniors’ responsibility to “train” the junior to fit into the student community. The rites are done in military style in order to instil and “indoctrinate” the value of “togetherness” and “solidarity” among the juniors. The values are absurd and unrealistic in the real world. At the end, when one graduate, everybody enters the real world and nobody is going to wait for the ones lagging behind just because of “solidarity”. Of course my classmates are helping each other once in a while, but that’s not because of “solidarity” per se, but more because of professional networking and real friendship that did not result from the 3 days initiation rites.

Besides, the emphasised value of “togetherness” and “solidarity” manifests itself negatively into avoidance of individuality and “being different” in Indonesian society. I remember, my sister in law told me, that once she worked in a bank where many lawyers are receiving gifts and bribes from client. My sister is the only lawyer who refuses bribes, and guess what she got? A cynical look and hatred from other colleagues, because she refused to join the bandwagon of corrupt lawyers in the bank! She was hated for lack of “solidarity” to be corrupt together. In conclusion, this cycle of “solidarity” helps perpetuates the culture of corruption in Indonesia, because whistleblower are seen as unpopular choice for “being different”.

Moreover, the concept of seniority is very much reinforced due to the cycle of initiation rites from very beginning of a student life. This perpetuates itself into the working environment in Indonesia. It is common that older people or more senior persons in the office have more authority in making decision, just because they’re older. The young are therefore forced to suppress themselves under the authority of older (albeit more stupid) people. “Saya sudah lama di sini, tahu apa kamu?” (I’m here longer than you, and you know nothing) is a common closing argument in meetings.

Let’s go back to the initiation rite. The seniors also argued that the military style will instil discipline to the students. Eating disgusting stuff and wading in mud will teach the juniors not to be easily disgusted by natural conditions. The seniors also argued that indoctrination is more easily done with exhausted and weak physical conditions. Basically, the seniors come with all kinds of concepts and reasons to justify what they do during the initiation rites. Come to think of it now, to achieve those “noble goals” of discipline and togetherness did not have to be done that way. Because the underlying reason of doing the ritual, which nobody ever mention it publicly, are to maintain tradition (the seniors felt weak if they’re unable to continue this tradition), to have fun by making the juniors perform silly stuff, and finally, to avenge (“balas dendam”).

Moreover, I really don’t see the purpose of having architecture students eat dirt, eat booger, and lick armpit. I don’t see the point why an architecture student needs to see oneself as ugly and a slut.

A good friend of mine is a supporter of initiation rites. He argued that the rite is necessary to enter the student organization. If a junior hasn’t gone through the rite, he is not a member of the student organization, and therefore, he is excluded from the student community. I think that is exactly the flaw of the system. Why do you need to go through a rite in order to be registered in an organization? If the student organization is so compelling and attractive, student will sign up by themselves without having to be forced through obligatory initiation, or having to be excluded from community. The student organizational structure will automatically weed out the people who are not serious, and of course, people have choice to join or not to join the organization. IT’S ALL IN THE FREE MARKET MECHANISM! Why one needs to be forced to go through initiation and join a single organization? Let people have choice, and let people be different from one another.

As I grew up, now I look back and think of it as totally waste of time and did not make any sense at all. Of course, there may have been some positive side effect of the rites, but I felt that the negative side is even more prominent.

When I shared my experience with Indi, he was really surprised at how bad the hazing and seniority culture has been in Indonesia. He never experienced higher education in Indonesia, and in the US where he grew up, there is no such thing as seniority (age discrimination). Individuality and openness to debate are the norms there, despite differences in age, skin color, etc. Hazing is considered as grave crime there. Despite of the absence of seniority and hazing in the US, their education system thrives even more than Indonesia. I’m not saying that US system is perfect, but certainly in some aspect it is better than Indonesian education system and culture.

I began to felt the futility of initiation rites, when I became seniors themselves. I was just unable to get myself to scream at the juniors, because I couldn’t understand why it has to be like that. This surprised most of my friends, because they thought I am easily “ignited” and really loud in real life. I just ended up watching from the tent, and when juniors passed by, I just talk to them in a polite manner. It is really enjoyable to engage in conversation with juniors rather than being authoritarian towards them.

Now as a parent, I felt really happy when my son can become disciplined he understands why he had to be disciplined, after series of giving out examples to him and talking to him. Now Noe always cleans his table and takes dirty dishes to the dishwasher, because he understands that it’s good to do that. I’m glad that I didn’t have to resort in spanking or hitting or even punishing. It’s definitely more difficult and slower to teach my kids by example rather than by authority, but it is also more rewarding. And it won’t perpetuate cycle of violence. I just wish that the student community of Indonesia has a mentality of a parent rather than of military officers.

I think the initiation rites are just a waste of energy. There are millions people needing help due to earthquake, tsunami and flooding in Indonesia, and the university students are wasting time painting chicken yellow and putting lipstick on the beak. Or kicking other students’ butt. This is really pathetic.

So, what’s your take on this?


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