Albert Francis E. Domingo, MD

my flight of ideas

Upsilon Sigma Phi

Ninoy Aquino - UpsilonianFor what reason do fraternities exist and should they continue to exist?

INTRODUCTION

The fairly recent slew of controversies in which fraternities have found themselves have both gradually and drastically changed the way these distinct associations are perceived. While for the most part of the last century, association with Greek-letter societies was widely viewed as a status for which to aspire; today, its appeal has waned and dwindled to an arguably narrow segment of the populace. To many, it continues to be a compliment, being identified with one. However, the context of both the times and the words of those who speak them, make it unmistakable that from the external point of view, reference to one as a fraternity member is no longer praiseworthy in many cases – rather, it is expressed in mockery or condescension.

This unfavorable perception is largely, if not wholly, attributable to what has been referred to as a culture of violence, manifested in two forms: hazing and rumbles. Both these terms are almost singularly and unhesitatingly associated with the word ‘fraternity’ itself, and with the familiar and resounding names of Lenny Villa, Dennis Venturina, Niño Calinao, Alex Icasiano, Den Reyes, Marlon Villanueva and most recently, Cris Mendez, included in the list of deaths claimed by this culture in only the past thirteen years, yet forever indelibly written in our memories as victims of such practices, it is high time for fraternities to justify their continued existence, as demanded by the University. Certainly, it is these unfortunate events that have served as a catalyst to the inevitable raising of the question, “For what reason do fraternities exist and should they continue to exist?”

To answer this query, it is insufficient to either seek to justify the commission of the said acts, futile and irrational as this may be, or in the alternative, to denounce them and to pledge an unyielding commitment to combating the same. To the reasonable mind, this would be mere lip service and no more than the many similar empty promises that have been made many times before. Furthermore, to simply dispel or condemn this culture would be to beg the question. For the notion that an organization would not engage in any immoral, illegal and unjust activity does not lend substance to its claim that it is a positive component of society, worthy of continued existence.

Thus, this dissertation will not limit itself to addressing this negative aspect of violence so assigned by many as synonymous to the very existence of fraternities. Neither will it give assurances for the future, not because of a lack of intent or capacity to live up to what is capable of being promised, but for the reason that doing so would be pure conjecture and would be of scant value. Instead, this essay will put emphasis on the concrete steps that have been taken in the recent past by the Upsilon Sigma Phi, as well as other akin societies, to solve the problems affecting their subsistence. More importantly, it will give attention, rightfully deserved, to their productive undertakings so often neglected by popular opinion, which has unfortunately yet understandably been mindful solely of such fraternities’ abhorrent mistakes but not of their many relevant endeavors. In sum, this paper will give a fair and objective evaluation of the status of the fraternity system today, stripping its contributions of all embellishments, and conceding its faults without justifications. Once balanced light is shed upon both the positive and the negative aspects of fraternities, it is submitted that their continued existence, while not infallible as is any product of human effort, will be more beneficial to society than otherwise. And eventually, the existence of fraternities need not be questioned anymore.

I. THE ROOTS OF BROTHERHOOD

A. GRECIAN SOCIETIES

In Ancient Greece, the Hellenic period beginning 1000 B.C. ushered in the formation of the first city-states, the most important of which were Sparta, Argos, Corinth, Thebes and Athens. Each city-state was sovereign over its entire territory, and as a natural consequence of their proximity to one another, rivalries and jealousies culminated in frequent conflicts. In fact, much of Ancient Greek history is the history of the attempt of one or more Greek cities to dominate the others. Meanwhile, scattered throughout the region were various tribal groups, the peoples of which the Hellenes referred to as barbarians due to their uncivilized way of life.

Some of the greatest developments of human civilization coincided with these warring times, which extended to the third epoch. Ironically, this was the backdrop for an intellectual revolution in the fields of philosophy, the arts, politics, culture, mathematics and the sciences; it was an environment that fostered the free exchange of ideas and liberal thought that was integral to the establishment of early civilizations. Indeed, Ancient Greece was home to great thinkers, brilliant artists and skilled craftsmen who laid down foundations of civil society – immortal names such as Aristotle, Plato and Socrates immediately come to mind. These great men, recognizing the significance of the knowledge they had gained, established institutions wherein their learnings could be passed on to others, and be made seeds of further growth, such as the Lyceum and the Academy. Religious, cultural and social groups likewise flourished. These institutions served as avenues through which individuals could promote their beliefs, and as pillars of academic, religious and political development. It is now well-embedded in the annals of history that classical thought and society sprung from the glory that was Ancient Greece.

B. ENGLISH BEGINNINGS

Inspired by Grecian life, students in England conceived the creation of Greek-letter societies and college fraternities sometime during the 17th century. Speculative assertions point to the rise of the Freemasonry as the more direct root of this fact, though dust left behind by the passage of time has covered any definitive finding as to the truth of this claim. Likewise, the precise raison d’etre of such fraternities is neither clear nor uniform. In some cases, scholasticism was the avowed function, in others, it was for social purposes. Part of this uncertainty is explained by their culture of secrecy and exclusivity. But this aside, the relevance to our interests of this evolution in human interaction came more than two centuries later, during the early years of the 20th century, when membership signified a particular stature, an honor for students in the top universities of the United Kingdom.
At that time, affiliation with Greek-letter societies was the rage. Not only this, but walking sticks or canes also became vogue for young gentlemen to carry around. For the highly Westernized Filipino, it was inevitable that he, too, follow suit.

C. PHILIPPINE EMULATION AND ASSIMILATION

A decade after the University of the Philippines was established in 1908, fourteen students from its Liberal Arts and Business units on Padre Faura adopted the English fad. This led to the formal organization of the Upsilon Sigma Phi or the University Student’s Fraternity, founded upon ideals of academic excellence and campus leadership, exclusive only to the known exemplars of these virtues.

True to the English influence, secret rituals were performed to confer membership on those applying for such, and the wooden canes likewise transposed from British mode became instruments for the extremely rare occasions on which misbehaving applicants would be hit by those already members.

Later, the exact date of which is also ambiguous though almost certainly post-war, these walking sticks transformed into a flat, wider shape. Today, they are commonly referred to as paddles.
However, while the Upsilon is recognized as the first Greek-letter society in all of Asia, it was not the first fraternity in UP. That distinction belongs to the Rizal Center, a brotherhood of Jose Rizal followers, who viewed the hero in iconic fashion. For most of the pre-war era, a heated rivalry prevailed between these two societies, though the competition was manifested through the academic and political fora, and never through physical means. This rivalry for campus dominance remained true despite the birth of several other fraternities in the University.

The assimilation into Philippine culture of this type of brotherhood can be described as seamless. In truth, it was nothing new to our people: vital to the reformation movement during the Spanish colonial period were the propaganda efforts exerted by Masonic lodges both here and in the Castillan kingdom. Another group was La Liga Filipina, which was founded on ideals of mutual aid and self-help, and which represented the people’s desire to rid society of its ills in order to establish a united archipelago. This later gave way to the Katipunan, which sought a divorce between the islands on the one hand and Spain on the other through a revolution of the masses. Clearly, the idea of an exclusive brotherhood in Philippine culture, steeped in secrecy and united in its purpose, can hardly be depicted as an innovation of UP fraternities.

But while its roots once fit into the native context with ease, the changes brought about by time spurred a mutation in their very being, a degeneration to some, placing it uniquely in our society, though more in a notorious, rather than enviable, light. The unfortunate effects of the Second World War, in addition to the proliferation of fraternities in post-war Philippines, made membership in them inescapably tied to that so-called culture of violence.

II. THE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE

A. THE HAZING TRADITION

Unabashedly proclaiming to the world that a prerequisite to membership was undergoing physical initiations, UP fraternities nevertheless attracted throngs of applicants by the second half of the last century, notably because of the prestige that many thought came hand-in-hand with such affiliation, and more significantly, due to the emerging paths to power. Indeed, numerable alumni of the pre-war fraternities had become influential and successful leaders in politics and other fields, and this fact proved irresistible to the ambitions of many UP scholars. So much so that they were then more than willing to risk life and limb, quite literally, to acquire the perceived privileges of affiliation.
The paddle became the trademark of fraternities. Its use as a symbolic exorcism of evil spirits from the human body was a practice likewise inspired by ancient beliefs. Paddling was done on the posterior side of a neophyte’s thighs, but this apparently was not sufficient. Gradually, punches and kicks became part of the ritual as well, undermining the use of the paddle, which at least had some symbolic value and discipline to it. And to complete the regressive permutation, creative minds made use of various tools apart from the paddle to inflict pain. By then, such infliction of pain had practically become the rationale for holding initiations itself.

In retrospect, the creation of this new tradition of hazing draws a distorted parallel to Darwinian thought, which explains how human beings evolved from primitive creatures to the sophisticated beings they are today, but with the exception of the vacuum somewhere along the way, that which we know as the ‘missing link.’ For in the history of fraternities, the pre-war era hardly saw any resort to physical initiations, it was more in the concept of humiliation and slavery, yet on the other side of the war, hazing had somehow nestled into the rituals of fraternity initiations. The period of Japanese occupation, during which academic life, and thus, recruitment into Greek-letter societies, was held in abeyance, is analogous to such a vacuum, leaving a mystery as to what precisely took place that was enough to change the course of nature. Of course, the major difference lies in the opposite effects of the unexplained void in between. In the Theory of Evolution, the uncivilized became civilized; in the history of UP fraternities, it was the reverse.

Some observers claim that the horrors of war under Japanese rule desensitized the Filipino people to some extent, and that violence, propagated during Spanish reign and even in pre-colonial times, had been resurrected by such atrocities. As a result, even the educated classes of Philippine society became numb to the inhumanity of violence, crudeness and vulgarity. This, of course, is a mere posit which has yet to be proven by scientific study. Nevertheless, it is a posit worth noting, especially in the case of Greek-letter societies.

In contemporary times, however, this should be of little significance. It is now a universal acceptation that acts of violence are both immoral and illegal, save for a few exceptions universally recognized by law and morals. To be more in point, hazing itself has become the subject of legislative action in the Philippines. Republic Act 8049 or the Anti-Hazing Law is a penal statute explicitly proscribing the use of physical force in initiating would-be members of fraternities. In fact, it goes as far as including acts of humiliation in its definition of ‘hazing.’ Furthermore, University rules have amplified this law by placing the consenting neophyte under pain of expulsion, as well as imposing more detailed guidelines in the conduct of initiations. Collectively, these efforts should be more than enough reason to deter fraternities from performing physical rituals. But the sad fact that the entire nation has been introduced to the surnames Icasiano, Villanueva and Mendez is proof enough that the dubious ‘tradition’ of hazing persists in at least some, if not most, of these associations.

B. RUMBLES AND INTER-FRATERNITY HOSTILITY

The other half of the culture of violence comprises rumbles and similar hostilities, another menace that has hounded the UP fraternity system since post-war Philippines. Perhaps to have expected any other result would have been naïve; with the burgeoning of the system by way of entry of many societies into its fold, taken in conjunction with the natural tendencies of its members at such a stage in their lives, an atmosphere of fierce rivalry and friction was bound to prevail.

Indeed, the University was not host to such an unfriendly environment even up to the 1950’s. During those times, fraternities competed strictly in academic and related student-activity fora. Thus, it was not uncommon to find fraternity members at the forefront of student issues and of the honor lists, serving as model campus figures, held in high regard by their colleagues and the UP administration alike.

The highly exclusive fraternity system, open only to the crème de la crème, was then a positive force in the University, truly living up to its avowed purposes of leadership and excellence. It was not until the establishment of similar brotherhood-type associations that healthy competition turned from the light and faced the darkness. For then, jealous pride dictated that their young members defend the societies to which they had pledged unwavering loyalty, and for their entry into which they had sacrificed much.
The landscape changed considerably. By now, focus was placed on how one fraternity would best the other, rather than on how one fraternity would further live up to its ideals. Hostilities between fraternities emerged, destroying the once-respectable institutions’ reasons for being. Clashing interests found their expression in physical measures and in the process, giving birth to the other word with which fraternities are notoriously identified – rumbles. Spanning two scores, these rumbles went from the use of simple fisticuffs to that of pillboxes, then from brandishing lead-pipes to the desperate resort to firearms. This obvious spiraling into animalism brought with it ungentlemanly means in undermining the enemy. How Machiavellian schemes became staple fare in meeting those ends no longer need to be outlined; their graphic consequences certainly leave little to be imagined.
Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, criminal laws and administrative liabilities have failed to deter fraternities from entering into and participating in rumbles. So prevalent in fact is this practice that no academic year passes without news blowing up of a rumble or attack or hostility of some sort between warring societies. It has become more than a common occurrence: it has become an expectation. Indeed, one cannot resist but wonder how these groups go to extents to clarify that they are distinct – in fact, on an altogether different plane – from gangs, and yet carry themselves out as such in many instances.
What is to be noted here is the general atmosphere of animosity and distrust that has reigned in inter-fraternity relations for several decades, the seed of which is nothing more than insecurity, thriving on a constant sprinkling of brainwashing and encouragement. To the outsider, no amount of rationality could explain or justify this failure of fraternities to peacefully coexist. To him, no individual with an ounce of self-respect, much less a scholar of the University, would go so low as to participate in such juvenile, petty and disgraceful pursuits. For his assurance, he should be told that his sentiments are not totally lost on those within the system. There continue to be enlightened members who strive to rise above the evils of rumbles, as well as hazing. And in the next chapter we shall see precisely what we have here claimed.

III. CHANGING THE CULTURE: A FRATERNITY’S EFFORTS TOWARDS SOLVING PROBLEMS IN THE SYSTEM

Recognizing the pitfalls surrounding the UP fraternity system, the Upsilon Sigma Phi has endeavored to make significant contributions toward their effective resolution. In line with its principles of leadership and service, the Upsilon embarked on a problem besetting not merely the fraternity system, not only the UP community, but one confronting the nation and the world. On May 1, 2005, the Upsilon officially joined the challenge to put up 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in 7 years. It became a Gawad Kalinga (GK) partner.

The noble objective behind the GK movement is celebrated. In brief, it is to develop holistically not only homes but communities, with the aim of defeating poverty and violence, throughout the Philippines and beyond. Its goal is to provide land for the landless, homes for the homeless, and food for the hungry. And while it begins with a physical transformation – building houses in slum areas and beautifying their environs – it does not stop there. It seeks to promote livelihood by providing members of the transformed communities with training in various crafts. It encourages spiritual growth by organizing prayer meetings and various church activities. It humanizes the less fortunate, who have had to cope with substandard means of existence for many years, and as a result, have lost all hope of rising above their circumstances. It gives peace and dignity to every Filipino it has reached.
Since first uniting with GK two-and-a-half years ago, countless members of the Upsilon, both residents and alumni, have taken part in putting up these homes and communities whether through actually putting up roofs and walls, or through generous donations of financial aid, properties, and of infinitely more valuable time and effort. The Fraternity’s affinity with the GK effort is well-entrenched, though it cannot claim to be among its chief movers. Nevertheless, one of its major roles has been to bring GK to the UP studentry.

In this light, Upsilonians founded UP Gawad Kalinga and opened its doors to the entire UP community, including other fraternities. It has actively promoted individual and organizational involvement in its projects, seeing it as a radiant opportunity to unite the students behind a very worthy cause. Some degree of progress in inter-fraternity relations has been made here. In 2006, the UP Gawad Kalinga, with a collection of volunteers and Upsilonians at the helm, launched its all-out campaign against poverty. With a multitude of students from several UP units joining arms, UP GK’s maiden effort was a rousing success. In 2007, it has perpetuated its previous triumphs by organizing ‘Frat Wars,’ a joint project of 11 UP fraternities in building communities under the umbrella of the GK movement. Defying the pessimist’s expectations, scores of fraternity members, while holding shovels, hammers and picks in their hands, proceeded not against each other, but against the common enemy of poverty. While not claiming merit for this milestone, for certainly it took the cooperation and open-mindedness of several societies to realize what once was a mere vision, the Upsilon nonetheless takes humble pride in being part of this renewed vigor in achieving harmony.

Although many somewhat similar attempts to broker peace have been made in the past, such as the Inter-Fraternity Council and the UP Barkada ng mga Fratmen sa Campus, none has had more impact and has been more productive than the UP GK initiative. This is primarily because each fraternity is made to stand on the same ground, they are made comrades rather than adversaries. Indeed, this undertaking has been instrumental in providing an avenue by which members of various fraternities are able to work together and to establish a modicum of trust in one other – essential starting points on the path towards peaceful coexistence. However, from an internal perspective, the Upsilon’s partnership with Gawad Kalinga is much deeper than this.

For in lieu of hazing neophytes, the Upsilon instead requires would-be members to join the community-building projects of Gawad Kalinga. Immersion and integration with these communities, accompanied by an indoctrination on the fundamental canons of the Fraternity, is what its initiation comprises today. The lessons learned in undergoing such a unique experience has proven to be quite fruitful – a better grasp of social concerns, a better sense of self-discipline and humility – all these have improved the character of Upsilonians on campus, without compromising the level of hardship in acquiring membership to boot. This particular evolution in its initiations is rightfully attributed to its alumni, many of whom had been active in GK for several years. In Los Baños, former UPLB Chancellor Ruben Villareal, among others, spearheaded efforts in promoting the fight against poverty, using Gawad Kalinga as the vehicle. Through their ingenuity, an innovation in the conduct of initiations was born, one that has a relevant and positive impact on Philippine society while posing difficulties within legal bounds. And while admittedly hesitant at the outset, its residents have come to understand the wisdom of their elders.

Today, the GK experience to the Upsilonian is not only community-building, for in his personal life, it is character-building.

Indeed, this partnership with GK is the banner undertaking of the Upsilon. For while it remains engaged in many other concerns – including campus politics, scholastic pursuits, athletics, and social projects, none encompass its ideals quite as widely as does Gawad Kalinga. It is these ideals which shall now be discussed in the chapter following, to further synthesize the reasons justifying the continued existence of Asia’s first Greek-letter fraternity.

IV. ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE AND CAMPUS LEADERSHIP: CLASSIC UPSILON IDEALS PERSISTING TODAY

In the old Padre Faura campus, the fourteen founders of the Upsilon Sigma Phi conceived of a brotherhood restricted to select individuals – the pedagogical and political elite of the University – in conformity with prevailing British trend yet mythically anchored to local roots. To form the core of its rationale were two ideals: academic excellence and campus leadership. These two concepts, so intrinsic to the Fraternity even today, have been the very fiber constantly defining and redefining its fate. Yet neither of these concepts, taken together or separately, explain why the Fraternity exists. They may encapsulate what its members aspire to, but they do not state what the society’s role is in such an aspiration. Does it, therefore, have any relevance in relation to its ideals?

The answer is in the opening line of an Upsilon doctrine: “The dominant policy of the Upsilon Sigma Phi is to prepare the aspiring and purposeful young man for the responsible leadership in his community, the nation and the world.” Pursuant to its ideals, the brotherhood is obliged to meet a specific task – that is, to dress the motivated and forward-looking UP students with the necessary tools for future leadership not only within the University, but even on national and global levels. This is the very role of the Upsilon. This is its raison d’être. Perhaps one would ask what relevance this has, especially one who has achieved a great measure of success without having ever been part of any similar association. Going further, it may even be argued that to provide such preparation simply means that its members are weak, for only those who are unable to prepare themselves seek to be prepared by a fraternity. Valid as these points may appear to be, they nevertheless proceed from an erroneous presumption.

The underlying principle behind the rationale for the Upsilon’s existence is in its recognition that whereas institutions such as family and school are invaluable components to the maturity of an individual, they are not sufficient to mold the character of a qualified leader. For a qualified leader, in addition to having a stable upbringing and an informed or educated background, must likewise have had experienced facing ordeals and tribulations on his own, where he can neither take refuge in the bosom of his loved ones nor find shelter within the structure of the academe. For though irreducibly worthy of forming the very foundation of a qualified leader, the home and the school are not that conducive to fostering one’s further growth. In plainer language, for one to be a responsible young man prepared for future leadership, he must have had the opportunity to rise above his troubles without so much the reliance on unfailing pillars such as family and school, but rather, on his dependence primarily upon himself and to a lesser but nonetheless important extent, on his capacity to interact with others. It is when he is taken away from the comfort of his environs and thrust into the realities of life that his character emerges. It is such an unfamiliar world that he learns to abandon the frailties of human nature – selfishness, self-centeredness, fear, mediocrity, among many others. Only then can one truly claim to be qualified to lead, for only then can he claim to have triumphed over challenges by his own means.

The error in presumption lies in the thought that the Upsilon Sigma Phi, while having the abovementioned purposes in mind, purports to be the sole vehicle for such shaping of a man. It does not. There certainly are many other ways through which a student of the University, or anybody else for that matter, may experience such character-building challenges. The Upsilon does not have the audacity to assert a monopoly of providing this opportunity, nor even to claim that membership in its fold is the sole key to future success. It submits, however, that it is one key, that it is one vehicle, through which a young man may fulfill his potential. And this submission finds support in its accomplishments of recent times, just as those in its long history.

In 2001, an Upsilonian graduated Valedictorian of his UP College of Law Class and ranked Number 1 in that year’s Bar Examinations. That same year, the third-ranked bar topnotcher was also a member of the Fraternity. In 2003, another member graduated Valedictorian of the UP College of Law and yet another graduated Salutatorian of the entire UP Manila unit. These past few years, the Upsilon has seen several of its members complete their stay in the University as summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude students. Furthermore, one of its members served as the Diliman University Student Council Chairperson in 2004, the year when the USC turned over close to a million pesos, raised via Council activities, to the administration as seed money for student services. The following year, an Upsilonian likewise served as the Chairperson of the Manila University Student Council, the same time as another member was the Editor-in-Chief of the Philippine Collegian. A year after, an Upsilonian became Editor-in-Chier of UPLB Perspective. Many other Upsilonians have served in various capacities as student leaders, and have been active in campus politics. Of note as well are several varsity athletes of the University, also members of the Upsilon, including an Olympian in 2004 and an ASEAN Games competitor in 2006. Also in 2006, an Upsilonian graduated as Salutatorian of the entire UP Los Baños. All in all, that these individual achievers are Upsilonians is too much of a coincidence, and to foist the illusion that their membership is merely accidental is to blind oneself, deliberately or otherwise, from the reality that the Fraternity has remained true to its tradition of academic excellence and campus leadership.

V. CONCLUSION

Aware that, for the most part of its existence, the fraternity system in the University has been plagued by controversies revolving around its culture of violence, this paper has sought to illustrate how such culture is being addressed at least by some fraternities. It has shown that the propagation of said culture, or passivity as to its development, is not an entirely accurate depiction of UP societies. While there are, admittedly, many imperfections that come along with their existence, there are nevertheless sincere efforts on the part of some to rid themselves of such evils. Furthermore, there have been attempts towards improving the system as a whole. The Gawad Kalinga initiative is a case in point.

Noteworthy here is the fact that while this particular project on the one hand addresses the ills of these associations, on the other hand, it is a worthy service beneficial even to those otherwise unaffected by them. This clearly shows that fraternities may in fact have a positive impact on their community, and a noble role in serving their fellow man.

Thus, in spite of the doubting Thomases and the aspersions they cast, there remains some relevance of the fraternity system in relation to society. Finally, as to the Upsilon’s ideals, which it hardly imagines to be the subject of criticism, the rationale behind the same as well as their discernible results have been thoroughly elaborated. At the risk of bootstrapping, the Fraternity maintains that it has satisfactorily demonstrated its continued relevance to these individuals. And no magnitude of doubt cast on the relevance of brotherhoods will weaken the Upsilon’s faith and loyalty to the ideals to which the fraternity bases its very existence.

All things considered, the Upsilon submits that fraternities do not deserve the threat of abolition they now face. While they enjoy no greater stature than any product of human endeavor, in that they are not immune to flaws, fraternities nevertheless have a role in molding leaders and in serving their communities. It is in this light that the relevance of fraternities should be viewed, while maintaining its vigilance as regards associations that do not deserve the protection and nurture of modern society and its laws.

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