Tradition: Form, not Function

This documentary–visually examining the varying perceptions of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Rag day (basically a day where faculty performances are put up to ‘thank’ the public for donations during an earlier Flag Day)–is a fine example of how traditions (so exquisitely defined by my colleague as a “meme that is passed down through generations”) can easily transmit down in familiar form, but not so much in original function.

Here are some excerpts from The Kent Ridge Common article on the matter:

The practice of Rag Day at NUS dates back to 1957, when it was still known as the University of Malaya.

Back then, as recollected by Donald Wyatt, the then-secretary of the Welfare Week Committee, the budget was limited to a few lorries and relatively simple banners. Today’s Rag day, however, is a lot more complex, featuring months of hard work, whether in fundraising or performance rehearsals, along with a lot of time spent on the creation and construction of elaborate floats […]

Yet, many students see the ‘real’ rationale of Rag as a means of bonding with fellow faculty or hall members involved in the event. Other students cite Hall or Faculty pride as a reason for Rag the competition…

And on the points of controversy:

A business student admitted frankly to the producers that without this element of competition, students would not have any reason to work on this Rag & Flag project over the course of 2 or 3 months.

Yet, this incentive of element of competition seems to have worked so well- almost too well- so as to overwhelm and overreach the original, ‘moral’ goals of Rag & Flag.

Student participants blithely admit that wastage of materials and money is common practice at Rag & Flag — nobody really uses recycled materials to construct the floats. What NUS students really do is to buy cartons of canned drinks, pour those drinks away, and then use those cans as ‘recycled’ materials.

As with any controversy, there is bound to be the issue concerning lax management of the event from the NUS Students’ Union:

Competition is a tool and not an end it itself; it is a tool that has to be used well and has to be tamed, if not it would become the ‘master’, so to speak. That the NUSSU Executive Committee is in denial, as shown by their unwillingness to admit to themselves and the camera that most of the floats are costing up to $10,000, does not help matters. Of course the NUSSU is not imposing much of this competitive spirit onto the participating bodies, but NUSSU has an obligation, in my opinion, to regulate this unhealthy competition and stamp out undesirable and wasteful practices.

Is competition always healthy? In this case, how has it gone too far?

Do you know of any other ‘traditions’ that have changed in values and purpose over the years in your society? 

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One thought on “Tradition: Form, not Function

  1. Seems like the ‘made with recycled materials’ has lost its true meaning. Competition can be healthy, but when the rules or guidelines are twisted to cater to the needs of those participating, then it is no longer meaningful to even participate in the first place.

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