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Commentary: What’s the problem with a cheer about 'kukubirds'?

Instead of being so quick to judge a childish orientation activity, it is more important to continue to guard against overly sexual, misogynistic or violent behaviour and to look at the underlying issues these activities unveil, says Karen Tee.

Commentary: What’s the problem with a cheer about 'kukubirds'?

File photo of a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) lecture theatre. (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

SINGAPORE: Here is a tale of two kukubirds.

Tale number 1. About a week ago, a video of a group of students riotously chanting “kukubird” (a reference to the penis) while making thrusting hip gyrations was shared on Instagram.

Believed to have been filmed during a freshman orientation camp at Nanyang Technological University, this sparked a significant amount of online censure, with blogger mrbrown aka Lee Kin Mun calling out this behaviour and netizens quickly joining in to express outrage. Ostensibly, such a crude cheer is offensive and unbecoming of university students.

Tale number 2. In the movie Crazy Rich Asians, there is a scene of a rowdy bachelor party held in a freight ship, where one of the characters goes on stage to yell “kukujiao” (a variation of the penis reference) before goading the crowd into joining in.

By most accounts, the Singaporeans who noticed this little nugget were delighted that a local Hokkien slang had managed to sneak into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Author Kevin Kwan (right) and cast members Henry Golding and Constance Wu pose at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in Los Angeles on Aug 7, 2018. (File photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni) FILE PHOTO: Author Kevin Kwan (R) and cast members Henry Golding and Constance Wu pose at the premiere for "Crazy Rich Asians" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni


While the movie is fictitious, what struck me was the contextual similarity of both situations - a bunch of rambunctious young people resorting to childish, and some say stupid, actions in a moment of exuberance.

The difference in reception though, is stark. Perhaps this is borne out of a years-long habit of nitpicking at the annual orientation camps that our local universities hold.

Like clockwork for most of the past decade, during this time of the year when freshman camps are underway, media reports of sexualised orientation activities conducted under the guise of breaking the ice are sure to surface.

Many of these incidents, which range from coercing freshmen into re-enacting rape scenes both through dialogue and physical actions to asking female students questions about drinking bodily fluids are downright unacceptable.

They are lewd and demeaning, promote objectification and sometimes even trivialise sexual violence. These rightfully deserve censure.

READ: Commentary: Here’s what zero tolerance towards sexual misconduct looks like

File photo of students studying at the Hive, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

So, it was almost a relief when this year’s orientation activity outburst centred around an infantile playground insult. The first time I watched the leaked video, I rolled my eyes and, I admit, had a giggle at its puerile humour.

Let’s be clear - this juvenile chant about the human anatomy may be of questionable taste but it is not offensive, sexist or mysogynist. Is it really that big a deal to be shouting the slang for penis, which half the population possesses? And who among us has not uttered a swear word that invokes body parts or laughed at a crude joke?

READ: Commentary: Terms like ‘lucky boy’ and ‘men will be men’ are problematic double standards


Instead, it may be more productive to consider these orientation shenanigans as a manifestation of a somewhat repressed population.

In secondary schools, sex education typically focuses on abstinence. At home, many parents actively discourage their children from having boyfriends and girlfriends until they are in university and can find “the one” to get married to.

Many moons ago, when I was in a SAP (or Special Assistance Plan) school, I recall that the school did nothing to debunk the perception that students who dated were the bad eggs and belonged in a neighbourhood (read: less academically rigorous) school. I hope this has changed.

It can’t be unexpected then, to discover that the sudden liberation a young person experiences for the first time in university combined with a surge in hormones might translate to somewhat unruly behaviour as students finally get to explore this whole new world before them.

File photo of Halls of Residence at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

As gracious adults, instead of railing against the supposed degeneration of morality in the next generation or making snide comments about the “quality” of our university students, let’s allow the young some leeway to do dumb things, like cheer for kukubirds.

While we are at it, this could be a good starting point to relook the way sex-education is taught in schools. Combined, these are opportune ways to allow youth to organically learn about respect and boundaries along the way.

READ: Commentary: All this anger over voyeurism but what we need is respect

READ: Commentary: University campuses must be safe places for all

After all, we do not want the freshmen’s only takeaway from this furor to be to avoid filming school activities in the future.

Needless to say, a big bold line should be drawn when it comes to violent, misogynistic or sexist behaviour.


Besides educational institutions implementing new rules and guidelines, it is also up to the students to be “woke” enough to step up. The seniors, who are usually the ones organising orientation camps, can certainly exercise greater discretion when planning orientation activities.

I can’t think of a better reason to get rid of that deeply ingrained practice of merely rehashing what used to be done for tradition’s sake in favour of something that does not cross lines.

There are many non-sexual ways to get people to bond through embarrassing yet funny activities. For inspiration, take a look at the wedding gatecrashing activities that are so popular in Singapore. 

File photo of Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) undergraduates studying at the benches. (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

In this post #MeToo and #TimesUp era, students should be empowered to decline to participate in activities that they may feel uncomfortable about. Here, their support structure matters too.

Schools, teachers, parents and seniors can collectively create a safe environment for everybody. It is also worth reminding freshmen that while orientation is a good way to make new friends, it is not the only way. Perhaps this will help reduce the pressure they face to show up for all manner of activities.

We may not be able to take back the questionable sexualised orientation activities of the past but we can certainly change what will happen in the future. And that is exactly what growing up is all about.

Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Six years ago, people thought she was crazy to leave the security of her full-time job. Today, most want to know how she does it.

Source: CNA/sl


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