Making Monsters Out Of Our Students – The “Lucifer Effect” On Our Campuses

By M. Bakri Musa

I commend Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for his swift action in reassigning the commandant of the Royal Military College (RMC) over the death of one of its students, Naim Mustaqim, during a ragging incident. Earlier, the college had expelled the alleged abusers. Likewise, I praise Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin in issuing a stern warning of his “zero tolerance” for ragging in our public universities.

Ragging is now entrenched in our universities and residential schools, creating monsters out of these students, the “Lucifer Effect” being operative (more on that later). The ensuing scars and damages are consequential, both physical and psychological. A few like Naim get killed.

Ragging is one of those unsavory “traditions” of the colonial British that Third World natives have picked up with a vengeance. We denigrate everything associated with the colonials but somehow when it comes to ragging, we have no qualms in quickly adopting it. We have bested the Indians and Sri Lankans in the savagery of our hazing rituals.

The only effective way to end this pestilence that has plagued our schools and colleges is to initiate a “shock and awe” intervention that would impress everyone on the evilness of this hitherto foreign ritual. We have to do that now before we have other innocent victims.

Strong Individual and Collective Actions Needed

We need aggressive actions at both the individual and system levels.

At the personal level, we must help the family of Naim Mustaqim launch lawsuits against not only his alleged abusers but also the RMC authorities and personnel, including the reassigned commandant. They have been negligent in failing to provide a safe environment for those under their care. The government must also initiate criminal proceedings; those in supervisory positions including the wardens and teachers should also be prosecuted.

Naim’s family will not get their young son back, but by instituting civil and criminal actions we would make those responsible pay for their culpabilities. We cannot condone criminal behaviors lurking beneath ‘tradition.’

It is reprehensible that those who have been given the awesome responsibility for nurturing our young have neglected their duties, resulting in one promising young man being killed. Naim’s teachers and wardens had been with him for over six months, literally day and night, and yet they failed to notice the signs of his desperate need for help. I wonder how they would feel if their loved ones had been similarly neglected.

The first order of business for RMC’s new commandant must be to impress upon his staff their obligation to look after the safety of those under their charge. His second order of duty would be to punish those who had let this ugly situation occur. Those are his two immediate priorities, and not, as he was quoted, “to safeguard the college’s image and moral of students, staff, parents and the public alike.”

At the systemic level, the responsible ministers should issue directives to the vice-chancellors as well as principals of our universities and residential schools indicating that they would be held responsible for any ragging on their campuses. Were that to happen, they would suffer the same fate, or worse, as the RMC commandant.

I would like them to draw up specific rules and lists of “don’ts,” and the penalties for infringements, be given to student and parent (in the case of residential schools) before these students enroll. They (as well as their parents) would have to sign that document acknowledging their full understanding of the content.

Be strict for a few years and we would effectively get rid of this scourge. When the present generation of students who had been brutalized by ragging graduate (in three or four years), then this odious practice would end. Then our new students could look forward to coming to our campuses for a different experience, one more welcoming and nurturing.

I was privileged to be spared from attending our local university and thus had a vastly different college experience. One of the sweetest and most comforting words that greeted me on my arrival on campus in Canada decades ago was an upperclassman extending his hand and saying, “You must be Bakri, from Malaysia! Hi! I am Ray, your resident advisor!”

Of course during orientation week we still had to wear that silly beanie and were made to steal apples from the nearby orchards, but nothing beyond that. What I remember most was my seniors helping and guiding me. It was to them that I turned to in seeking advice on classes and what was appropriate to wear to campus functions.

That is what orientation week is supposed to be, to help incoming students adjust to their new campus environment.

Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

While I advocate severe punishment for the abusers of Naim Mustaqim, I am mindful that these kids are not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, what we have learned from the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment in 1971 is that those students who became torturers (and in Naim’s case, murderers) were normal human beings. Given a different set of circumstances they could very well become heroes.

Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” (after Lucifer, God’s favorite angel who turned evil; the Quranic version is Iblis who, banished by Allah from Paradise to earth for disobeying Him, made it his mission to convert as many mortals to his new evil and Satanic ways) is what made otherwise ordinary soldiers into sadists and murderers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Those who have read the accounts of Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, Raja Petra and others incarcerated under the ISA would immediately recognize the local variation of this Lucifer Effect. The difference between Kamunting and Abu Ghraib is merely a matter of degree, not kind.

In his experiment, Zimbardo recruited ordinary college students looking to make a few dollars as subjects in a human psychology experiment simulating the prison experience. What he discovered about human nature from that innocent experiment shocked him, and forced him to prematurely terminate the study.

What Zimbardo discovered was that students who were randomly assigned to be “guards” soon became vicious, senselessly brutalizing and inflicting gratuitous punishments on their “prisoners.” Even though those students were aware that they were being monitored and that it was only an experimental situation, nonetheless they persisted in their brutish ways.

There are other experiments along the same vein where the social situation, in short peer pressure, made the subjects do things they would not otherwise do.

The Lucifer Effect illuminates how otherwise good people can turn evil, given the “right” circumstances. Humans are like pet dogs. In the calm and nurturing environment of a quiet home with a caring master, it is the most docile, playful and obedient pet, indeed almost angelic. It would not bark even if your toddler were to yank its tail. However, let it loose with his canine friends to maraud in the neighborhood as a pack at night, and they would become vicious predators.

We must make sure that the environment in our schools and universities would not turn our promising young students into evil fallen angels. Those in charge, from the ministers down to the teachers and custodians, have an awesome responsibility to make sure that this would not happen. If they fail, then they must be made to pay a stiff price.

  1. #1 by Godfather on Monday, 5 July 2010 - 12:10 pm

    This case has been blown totally out of proportion. Naim’s death wasn’t due to the rigors of “ragging”. It was due to persistent bullying, and soon it will be revealed that the perpetrators of this crime were bullies throughout their stay in RMC.

    “Ragging” is about reminding freshies to demonstrate respect and humility to seniors. Once the ragging period is over, seniors and freshmen become friends and are bonded for a long time, not just during university life, but also throughout the careers of these people.

    As a senior, I’ve made freshies jump into the shallow end of the university lake. I jumped in with them too. I’ve stayed as friends with some of these people for the past 30+ years, and we still remember fondly of the times we made some freshies stay up late to do push-ups or made some scream against a brick wall.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 5 July 2010 - 12:38 pm

    Those RMC bums were mimicking the Americans’ methods of “ragging” their Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. If you can’t beat ‘m, join ’em

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Monday, 5 July 2010 - 1:06 pm

    But the ‘Lucifer-effect’ training is perfect training for future UMNO leaders!

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 5 July 2010 - 3:47 pm

    I agree that tertiary institutions and their resident colleges should ban ragging.

    Although some ragging is harmless, it is difficult to draw the line beyond which ‘freshies’ are humiliated and some cases leading to Naim’s fate.

    I don’t buy the usual argument that ragging is a way for seniors to get to know freshies. One can get to know without having to subject new comers to doing what the seniors bid – which is often to humiliate in the pretext of inculcating the new comers the importance to be humble.

    Our society is better if students are inculcated the values of extending help and support to the weak and the uninitiated instead of taking advantage to have some fun out of vulnerable these new comers.

    Much depends on the new students. They should not encourage bullies even in numbers. They should stand up against the senior bullies when they cross the line. If they intimidate that they would make your life hard for rest of the years, so be it. Make sure you promise them that you will make their life equally as hard for the rest of the years there….

  5. #5 by Godfather on Monday, 5 July 2010 - 4:13 pm

    I don’t think someone becomes a bully just because they have achieved senior status in university. Generally, the bullying habits would have started in secondary school, and this carries forward into tertiary education, especially in boarding universities. It is compounded by the fact that our standards have dropped so low that even those who spent their time clowning around, or bullying other students in school, can get into a local university.

    You accept brainless kids into universities, you are going to get bullies, drug pushers and maybe even football bookies.

  6. #6 by dagen on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 - 8:18 am

    Boy! Those fellas in NUS (dat was wot 25plus 30 yrs ago) were absolutely mad. And it was fun. You get tied up and dumped in the monsoon drain. So its your 21st birthday huh? 21 guys will stand upstream and pee into the drain. Medic students were worse. Body parts became their weapons. And of those eusoff hall girls. Whoooa. Watch it! Air borne ice cubes, man. Damned ice cubes. So careful if you do a raid there in the night. Crazy. Fortunately no one got hurt.

    Fun? Yes. Bullying? Depends on how one takes it. Its a big big game where everyone is free to participate. Well that was then anyway. Physical abuse etc etc – not quite.

  7. #7 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 - 8:25 am

    Bullies are everywhere if given the chance to do so. They are there because the environment encourages such behaviour. Yes, many of our Institutions loved the gangho way of “Tom Brown school days”, but people grow out of it when they mature. I tend to see that such useless practice of ragging or even orientation is essemtially a chance to bully instead of getting to know the freshies. We have all gone through that phase in life but can we grow out of it? If that mentality or mind-set is pursued into adult life that is the morphogenesis of BN today! And that mindset if embedded with the slogan of “ketuanan” will doubly ensure the kind of society we gonna have! With it, Malaysia will walk the path of Zimbabwe!

  8. #8 by HARGA diri on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 - 9:07 pm

    Ragging a person to death is a crime. Remember the social network whereby a young person committed suicide because of cyberbullying ? There is this sinful nature in every human being and if it is not brought under control, it will wreck the worst havoc. Since the creation of this world, humans have been proving themselves to be great, to be leaders. Decapitation is heroic. Doing the ancient bungee jump was cool. Throwing a baby metres down ensures fear will be cast out from it. Barking away shows that you are a potential great leader. Ragging is meant to toughen up a person’s spirit. Don’t be soft. Be mean. Be lean. Be aggressive. In times of war, you have to be aggressive enough to fight and to defend. A few soldiers cannot win a war. Many soldiers might not win a war. You need strategy. Your government needs how to make things happen or not happen in order to win a war. Histories tell us how wars are won and how wars are lost.

  9. #9 by good coolie on Sunday, 11 July 2010 - 2:31 pm

    The thin-skull (egg-shell skull) rule has it that if the victim of injury dies from a “minor” injury because of the victim’s own weak state (unknown to the attacker), the attacker is still liable to be found guilty of murder. The ragger is in this position when he kills his junior.

    The law is that if the school principle does not take care that ragging is not practised in his school, he is negligent, and should be f….d by the full force of the law.

    Ragging is bullying. It can get out of hand easily!

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