The Phantoms of Tembusu – An Attempt to Understand the Misunderstood

It has been three months since students moved into their rooms and most have already committed themselves to various interest groups, become a part of the house committee, and perhaps even joined the CSC. You want to be seen as part of a group, a collective, belonging somewhere and seen out and about on campus lest you become a (gasp!) “Phantom”, widely thought of as lesser beings within the social hierarchy of Tembusu. Within this hierarchy, those who are more visible in the College naturally assume the higher rungs while those who do not have the same visibility fall through to the bottom.

Phantoms — those who are deemed to have fallen to the bottom of this social hierarchy within the college. The ones who are hardly visible in the social sphere of Tembusu where members socialise and interact with others. You might not even know that they exist. There seems to be a culture where one has to be seen doing stuff in the college. If you’re not, this leads to the question: Why are you in Tembusu in the first place if you do not partake in the activities that adhere to the social culture here? This question is often posed to phantoms and indicates an implicit form of judgement on the phantoms. One where being visible in the social arena confers the power to judge those who are invisible, who are seen as the minority group, and this creates a very divisive culture where each is defensive of his choice to maintain visibility or the lack thereof.

Life in a Residential College allows for phantoms to do anything they want (or do nothing at all) because unlike staying in hall, one does not need to aggressively take part in activities to accumulate points. Perhaps, introverts enjoy the academic programmes offered by Tembusu but do not want to take part in activities which form the dominant social culture here.

The seminar-styled lessons is in fact an alternative learning platform that promotes discussion in smaller groups. Furthermore, the modules of the programme do have an interesting approach and differ from the usual modules taken at NUS. The Tembusu Forum allows one the rare opportunity to gain insight and hear the opinion of experts. Fellow’s Teas allow one to hear the opinions of an external guest. All these activities do not require one to be prominently visible in the social arena but are otherwise important aspects of the learning experience here.

Other phantoms may actually be a part of college activities, but activities that are perhaps niche and not visible to many. Activities not publicised on the Tembusu Facebook page and in the lifts may not be known to the larger student body. Even Treehouse, this writing publication you are currently reading did not have much promotion in the previous year. Thus, you may not even know who is actually writing for the publication in the background; a participation in an interest group but one that does not require high visibility in the social arena. Nevertheless, participation in Treehouse indicates that one is actively contributing to the college through the use of writing, so does this make one a phantom?

In addition, a phantom may consciously choose to distance himself from the social arena of Tembusu in order to focus on other priorities. The most obvious reason would be school work. While some people are capable of multitasking and being a part of many interest groups and committees, yet do well in exams, others need to study day and night in order to achieve the same results. Should we fault them for choosing to prioritise something they deem as more important?

In the end, what does it essentially mean to be a phantom, and ultimately what does it mean to be Tembusian? For me, a phantom is an individual forging his or her own personal identity, defining what he or she thinks is Tembusian and not caring about social hierarchy. Does it make you feel better to call someone a phantom? A way to say look at me, I’m in XX number of groups as compared to that phantom you assume is not even in a single interest group — I am part of the majority, you are not and you should conform. Perhaps there is a need to question if there is place for such a derogatory term in what is supposed to be an inclusive environment, where even those who are not seen in the social arena is accepted as being a Tembusian in his or her own unique way.

Photography by Vanessa Teo.

About the Author
Alex is a Year 1 FASS student, intending to major in History. He loves reading and is keen to learn more about the past, especially that of Singapore. A good drinker, often drunk.