In another week, this junkyard of trash is supposed to turn into a float. No, not gold or other riches, I’m afraid. This is part of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) rag and flag events. The float is the rag part of it. That rag is an understatement of the beauty of the floats and performances that will be put up students, one of the primary freshmen orientation activities in the new academic year.
I’ve long held some reservations about what rag and flag. Particularly, it’s about how rag has turned out to be. The original idea of the whole rag and flag was to garner donations from the public (this the “flag” part), and subsequently to thank the donors for their contributions by way of a show or performance (the “rag” part).
You don’t have to be a student involved in these rag and flag activities to know what’s going on. If you search online, you will easily find several criticisms of how these activities have evolved to be. From the original commendable charitable goals, it’s now quite common to see rampant wastage (of materials and money), unhealthy competition, and attitudes that are totally disjoint from the spirit of giving.
The whole rag is also pretty much un-green. You’d think they had collected and recycled waste to use in building the floats. That’s not always the case. You’d think the floats, after rag day, would be torn down and disposed in a “green” manner. They’re mostly not. In fact, I had personally come across an incident where pretty much most of the float was disposed in a construction site, much to the chagrin of the contractor who had to pay money to remove those waste.
The wastage doesn’t stop at that. Students expect 24hr air-conditioning for their activities, they expect to be provided accommodations, and so on and so forth. These are easy to ask for, because they don’t have to pay. But of course it’s not free. Someone has to pay. (The air-conditioning of an average sized seminar room running just 12 hrs a day can cost some $2K a month.)
A Straits Times article had reported spending per-float in the range of $6K to $30K. So let’s assume an average of $17K per float, and there are some 15 floats (the number at the 2011 Rag Day), that’s some $255K just on the floats alone. Try factoring in other incidental costs. I would not be surprised to see that number increase by another 100%.
Would you like to guess how much was collected from donations last year? Just $480K. I think that’s a pretty uncool amount considering the amount of money poured into the project.
It’s high time to rethink rag. I’m fine with the flag part. In fact, many other schools and organisations sell flags too, and they do fine without organising a thank-you show. Perhaps if NUS students feel they need to do better, then do something a whole lot better than rag.
There’s no denying that rag and flag also brings about other benefits. Student bonding (not sure about that in the face of unhealthy competition) and bringing good publicity for the university are but just two examples. The question is, at what cost? Can we preserve the original goals of the rag and flag, while achieving other ancillary benefits?