Indonesia, It’s Time to Abandon Your Ospek Tradition

The author undergoing ospek in university.

“FOKUS DEK!”

“KALIAN TUH UDAH DEWASA, GAK USAH MANJA!”

“BARU MASUK AJA KAYAK GINI, MAU JADI APA NANTINYA?”

If the statements above resonate well in your head, you’re an Indonesian who has undergone the ritual we call as Ospek. Ospek stands for Orientasi Studi dan Pengenalan Kampus (Study Orientantion and Campus Introduction), which is commonly used as an umbrella term used for freshmen orientation in secondary and tertiary education.

Ospek is generally conducted upon a new batch’s entrance to the new school year, as well as during student extracurricular/student activity unit acceptance weeks. Indonesians view Ospek as a long-time tradition aimed to prepare the new intakes for the unique challenges of higher level of education that they will inevitably face. A lot of Indonesians pride themselves for having gone through Ospek — many of my friends still reminisce doing tons of assignments on those sleepless days, believing that Ospek has shaped a significant part of their lives. This all sounds good, right? Then why on earth am I suggesting we abandon this tradition in my headline?

If you googled “siswa meninggal karena Ospek” (students died from Ospek), you’ll find numerous news coverage of actual students who lost their lives because of Ospek. Many of these deaths are always linked to lack of supervision by the school administration: the teachers/staff were not monitoring the event closely as they should and left it to the hands of students. This prompted a policy by Anies Baswedan, our former Minister for Education, to ban conducts of Ospek by students.

While I acknowledge not all Ospek’s execution results in deaths, I’m going to make a case why we need to do away with Ospek as there are numerous harms that we overlooked. Today, Indonesia celebrates Hari Pendidikan Nasional (National Education Day). I believe one of the best way to celebrate Ki Hajar Dewantara’s legacy and vision of education is to take a close look at how we’re educating our youth today and evaluate its progress.

OVER-GLORIFICATION OF CONFORMITY

One of the values Indonesians cherish so much is its collectivist culture: look out for your fellow friends and neighbors; assist each other whenever you can; success isn’t a product of your own hard work but is built upon the hard labor of everyone around you that paved way for you to achieve yours — essentially, gotong royong is the key to a harmonious and prosperous society. But we need to recognize that Indonesians over-glorify collectivism to a point it dictates uniformity on all aspects. It conflates the concept with homogeneity, that diversity is to be seen as a penyimpangan (deviation) rather than an asset that unites us, as what our national motto is all about. Individual uniqueness or standing out in the crowd is seen as the inability to blend in with everyone else, and that drives Ospek programs to put a heavy emphasis on conformity.

Take for example, the “dress codes” that schools and campuses impose upon freshmen during Ospek. When I entered Junior High School, I had to wear the following for Ospek: a pink bandana with flowers, a necklace of cabe lombok ijo (giant green chili) with its amount according to my age (I was 11 so that means 11 chili), a bracelet of petai (stink beans) on my left arm, a bracelet of jengkol (dogfruit) on my right arm, a sarong worn like a Miss Universe sash, and 3 black lines on each of my cheek as if we were going to war. When I entered Senior High School, we had to wear a pirate hat fashioned from manila cartons and half of a plastic soccer ball to make it fit the shape of our heads (which we were required to shave into a military-style buzz cut), a big-ass name tag with raffia as the neck strap and the printing of the name must utilize used materials with each letter using different material. And if you saw the photo in the beginning of this article, that’s me in my dress code for Ospek when I entered university.

Why can’t freshmen orientation be done where people just dress normally? Does anyone honestly think that wearing all those contraptions are comfortable or fun? The use of odd paraphernalia in Ospek is a common social psychology concept we know as dehumanization, or the reduction of a person’s individuality that makes people see them as a lesser being, depriving them to be seen by their positive qualities. The “dress codes” basically says: don’t think of yourself as special, don’t think you’re better than anyone else here, you are all new kids who knows nothing and we will treat you like you’re nothing. It’s as if passing the rigorous entrance exam isn’t enough to prove your worth and Ospek is an additional step to prove your deservingness.

What we need to recognize is that a lot of our actions have many subconscious implications and our rationalization of our actions often dismiss those implications. While Ospek organizers think it would be a fun thing to impose such dress codes, they fail to see the harms. These dress codes elicit laughter, disgust, and disapproval responses from general public, and people make the subconscious association that looking different in any way, shape, or form will trigger similar responses. It basically says: if you don’t want to be laughed at or get picked on, avoid looking different and conform to the standard.

I recall primary school to be all cheerful and fun, but it changed as I grew up. In Junior High, whenever someone had a new hairstyle or wore their uniforms differently, people becomes so judgmental and talk about others like Jesus Christ’s Second Coming. When I was in an all-boys Senior High School, anyone who has a higher voice pitch resembling a girl or walked a bit differently would be target of sneers and ridicule.

Ospek propagates an environment where it’s a social crime to be different and this is why bullying is rampant, because being different is simply not tolerable. This is particularly dangerous, because a person’s teenage years are the golden years for their individual identity formation, where they should be able to explore who they are and who they want to be. Ospek severely limits that avenue and creates so much discomfort and unpleasantness for those who are different because they have to repress their selves out of fear of reprisal. It puts a label of shame on individual differences and that is damaging to a person’s psyche.

CULTIVATING A CULTURE OF SENIORITY

What I envision when I enter a new environment is making new friends and getting to know the other members of said environment. Ospek creates a completely different expectation: don’t expect upperclassmen to be nice to you; in fact, don’t even try to talk to them as if they’re your friend. There’s this invisible barrier that makes you reluctant to interact with upperclassmen even after Ospek, because you’re indoctrinated that you’re on different levels. This is another harmful impact: how it confuses seniority as a metric of competence. Ospek inflates upperclassmen’s sense of ego and worth because they’re the ones who devise the Ospek program and because they are the authority figure.

In one of the Ospeks I attended, the seniors liked to yell out: “TOLONG HORMATI KERJA KERAS KAMI DEK, KAMI GAK TIDUR SEMALEM CUMA DEMI NGURUSIN KALIAN” (“PLEASE RESPECT OUR HARD WORK, WE HAVE NOT SLEPT LAST NIGHT JUST TO LOOK AFTER YOU”). Pardon my French, but nobody fucking asked you to. This isn’t the Hunger Games where you’re picked out from a lottery — you volunteered (okay that is a bit like Hunger Games, but that isn’t the point).

Ospek creates a culture where you demand to be respected because of your position, and to me that is one of the most misleading concepts of all time. People really shouldn’t have to beg or demand for respect — they should earn it automatically just for the virtue of existing as a human being. The change of respect level, either increased respect or the loss of it, should only happen once you’ve seen evidence that changes your view on said person.

The problem with this seniority culture are two-fold. Firstly, it places upperclassmen with the monopoly of morality: seniors are deemed to be always right because they are in charge, even if they’re as incompetent as Donald Trump. Any challenge to their authority is seen as a threat and must be removed, rather than be treated as a constructive criticism to improve. It’s no wonder why many people hate the seniority culture in Indonesian companies and governmental institutions: people feel they’re entitled to certain form of appreciation just because they’ve been there longer and consequently, assume they know more and better.

Secondly, it creates tension and vertical conflict. When all they do is yell at the freshmen and making them do things that seem meaningless, it’s pretty hard for freshmen to grow respect to the upperclassmen. If anything, freshmen either develop a sense of resentment or fear towards the seniors. This tension can accumulate and escalate to physical violence, as evident by the numerous cases of brawls between seniors and freshmen during Ospek.

A perfect case study to explain this phenomenon is the Stanford Prison Experiment. Phillip Zimbardo, a worldwide-acclaimed psychologist, conducted this experiment to test out the effects of perceived power where he assigned roles to the participants: some became prisoners and the rest became prison guards. In short, the experiment found that the prison guards developed an authoritarian profile, using aggressive strategies such as psychological intimidation and torture to maintain order of the prisoners they are in charge over. What we can take from the experiment is that people aren’t inherently born good or evil, but rather the circumstance changes who and what they become.

This is called as external or situational attribution, where someone’s behavior is caused because of the situation they are in. The assignment of roles necessarily created the persona of the guards, leading them into doing things that they otherwise would not have done in a normal circumstance. The same goes for Ospek, where seniors develop this persona of being the authoritative figure and thus must take action to control the freshmen. What’s worrisome from Ospek is that the persona isn’t dropped when the program is over, but rather carried on as an identity because it grants them power and of course, holding power feels good.

Violence and aggression becomes a learned trait and then internalized from this event, which makes it more dangerous, especially coupled with the perception that Ospek is a rite of passage and the future generation should experience the exact same thing they did, creating a cycle of revenge.

IGNORANCE OF MENTAL WELL-BEING

Another principle Indonesians like to emphasize on is ‘discipline’ — the ability to behave according to the applicable rules and norms. It’s a particularly good value to instill, especially when Indonesians are so terrible at following rules. The method to instill discipline, however, is terrible and massively misguided. Indonesia has a tendency of overvaluing the military methodologies of doing things for historical and national pride reasons. The romanticization of military-style discipline leads to its usage as the benchmark for ideal discipline in education. For example, physical and corporal punishment is commonly widespread throughout the archipelago, even though it is slowly abandoned over time. Regardless, the underpinning principle of such disciplinary approach is this: ketegasan or firmness becomes the focal point of education.

This principle is carried out in Ospek as well. The way seniors communicate with their freshmen isn’t through a civil and humane tone, but rather through a firm, authoritative, semi-shouting tone. Whenever someone makes a mistake, they will be yelled at by the seniors. I recall rather vividly a distinct memory from Senior High School Ospek, where they had two timeslots each day dedicated for a session called litani.

In litani, the freshmen are told to stand up looking down while seniors storm around the hall yelling at them and then approaching students who had performed badly in the assignments or committed some form of violation of the Ospek rules, and scream in their faces and/or ears. I’ve heard they changed the system now to only yell from the stage using a microphone, but my criticism remains — is there such a need to talk to freshmen as if they’re unable to understand you in a normal person decibel?

What this does is ignoring the mental health well-being of the freshmen. There are people who aren’t accustomed to being treated like a criminal whenever they do mistakes — and that is perfectly fine. Some people actually have nice parents who raised them without the need of raising their voice in doing so. Some people have anxiety and are unable to handle the pressure of such chaotic screaming match. Some people are simply taken aback by the surprising treatment and is left shocked. Some people become so traumatized that they constantly associate the school with all the negative aspects of Ospek, becoming a detriment to their study.

None of those things are simple matters, folks.

We are at a point in history where psychology and other branches of mental health advocacy is more accessible than ever. We need to replace the narrative of “avoiding mental tempe” into one about “creating mentally sound and healthy individuals”. Not everyone plans to join the army and go to war, so there is no need for everyone to have a “mental baja”.

Another form of unacceptable practice is the use public shaming as an instrument to enforce discipline. Freshmen who didn’t fulfill the standards set out by the Ospek organizers will be called out publicly and shamed in front of tens, even hundreds, of their peers. They are being set out as an example of a failure, someone who is lazy, lacking of commitment, someone who you shouldn’t strive to be — essentially, being made into a social battering ram.

This methodology places emphasis on following orders to the letter as a defining feature of success. Never mind that mistakes will always happen. Never mind that students have a learning curve and entering a new environment means the opportunity to learn more. Trial-and-error is what makes people into better people. Demanding perfection might be a good thing in certain contexts such as the corporate life, but education’s aim should be to humanize us and not turn us into robots.

DISMISSAL OF ACCOUNTABLE APPROACHES

One of the most valuable things I learned when studying Psychology in university is this: if you want to do something relating to people’s psyche, you must have a valid and reliable scientific approach to it. The reason behind this is simple: when you tinker with people’s minds, personalities, and behavior — you must be sure of what you’re doing and that it must be held accountable. The same should go to the creation of orientation programs, but sadly dismissed by many educational institutions.

It is not enough to just have random games or seminars during Ospek to instill soft skills and values. It requires a carefully thought-out program that is based on clear theories and must be tested out before finally being officially used. Back in college, I had 2 separate modules covering this issue: Pelatihan I & Pelatihan II. It took us an entire year to try and develop a workable proposal for a soft skill development program, and even then there were still many revisions that needed to be made.

The reason for this is because you need to have the correct methods to elicit the correct expected responses of the participants where they can draw meaningful insights from the activity. You can’t have an activity where the intended soft skill insight is ambiguous — that defeats the purpose. You must also consider the target audience’s characteristics. Catch the flag, for example, might be suitable for junior high school students, but it certainly won’t be as effective of a method for university students. This is why a specific and carefully designed program is very crucial.

This shouldn’t be a process where you preach to them about teamwork (or other soft skills), but rather a self-discovery process where the emphasis is on the student’s active participation and the organizers should only act as a facilitator to guide (and not dictate) the flow of activity. This is something that skilled professionals like educators need to do, and not mere students.

CREATION OF SOLIDARITY

Okay, I’m going to be fair and argue what’s possibly the positive outcome of Ospek. It has a very good function of uniting a group of people who has no common identity by artificially creating one for them. When the freshmen intake enters the new school, they come from various backgrounds and nobody knows anyone at this point. To break the ice, you create an umbrella identity for them: the batch of (insert year here).

They are united because they undergo the same experiences and assignments given to them. They generally complain about how stressful and tiresome this entire process is and others empathize with said predicament because they identify with that situation. They then become a support system for each other, sending well-wishes and smiling to each other as encouragement. Unknowingly, they became one under a mutual suffering and the seniors are the out-group inflicting this ‘oppression’ upon them. Nothing unites people faster than a common enemy to fight against. It creates a sense of solidarity, a sense of fellowship and community between members of the collective. That’s good, right?

Not quite. Emile Durkheim, the father of Sociology, classified solidarity into two categories: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is when the cohesion of the collective comes from the homogeneity of the members and they feel connected through the shared similarities, such as their work, identities, and lifestyles; whereas organic solidarity is when cohesion derives from the interdependence that exists from different work specializations and how those differences complement people.

Ospek fits into the category of mechanical solidarity, because it focuses on the similarity of circumstance rather than on the interdependence of differences. Why is this a bad thing? The solidarity is only maintained insofar as the similarities remain. When the differences start to kick in, the similarity will dissipate and along with it, the sense of solidarity. So while Ospek might initiate initial solidarity among freshmen, it is not a sustainable one.

But even if for some reason the solidarity is sustained, it would still be a bad form of solidarity that would sideline individual uniqueness in favor of keeping the similarities as the focus. It is also prone for emotional manipulation towards its members, insinuating they have a specific duty to the entire collective. For example, many tawuran (brawls) happen because of a misguided form of solidarity: “I’m from school X and a member of School Y insulted our school, thus my friends and I must defend its honor!”

Or when I was in Junior High School, this narrative was used to force many of the top ranked students (myself included) to share answers of the National Exams to fellow classmates so they can pass and graduate. I remember our teachers saying, “Ayolah, kalian harus lulus semua sebagai satu angkatan, masa kalian mau ninggalin teman kalian dan biarin dia gak lulus?” (“Come on, you all have to graduate as one batch, do you really want to leave your friend and let them not graduate?”). This is a psychological manipulation done by drawing its power from your membership of a social collective and that if you do not comply, you are being a bad member at best — or a traitor to your own people, at worst.

So here’s my point: Ospek has so much negative implications that overshadows its possible benefits. Following tradition doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s best for everyone and we need to take the bold step to reform our system if we care about our youth.