story | Wisha Jamal, Managing Editor; Avani Adhikari, Editor-in-Chief; Harrison Linder, Former Managing Editor
*names have been redacted and anonymized due to privacy concerns
*Correction: Some of the sentences have been edited in order to increase clarity. We have corrected the date of the Penguin book incident based on the article by Yale Daily News. We have also edited the article based on new information that there were some members of the group that weren’t cis-gendered, and rich. The Octant apologizes for this mistake.
In some way, shape or form, our small corner in Singapore, Yale-NUS College, would definitely have endeared itself to us in our four years here. When we live, eat and study exclusively in this nine acre space for such a long period of time, it is only natural that students, staff and others end up forming deep and long-lasting bonds.
However, though our small size and diverse demographics help us achieve all these goals, it also has a darker side — one that we all know but never talk about.
At Yale-NUS and everywhere else in the world, people stick to people most similar to them. However, when a place is as diverse as Yale-NUS, any group built on ideology inevitably results in the concentration of these opinions. When people of a small college branch off into smaller groups, it encourages social isolation and extremism, allowing a few to dominate social scenes.
When these groups use their power and influence negatively, in secret with no form of accountability, they end up fracturing the underlying trust that binds Yale-NUS. This broken trust is not a hypothetical, but a reality that has already happened and caused deep scars. Rather than forget about this event completely, it is prudent that we remember and use it to color our future actions.
In this investigative piece, The Octant has documented the most significant of these secret groups and the damage it has caused to individuals. More importantly, by writing this piece, we want to ask the community — how can we be accountable to our past, and how do we stop it from repeating?
Who were the Leones Luminantes?
*names have been redacted and anonymized due to privacy concerns
Leones Luminantes (L.L) — the Illuminated Lions, a reference to Singapore’s status as “the Lion City” was a secret society on campus that formally operated from 2013 to late 2017 or early 2018. Founded by a former Dean’s Fellow (DF), the group was initially meant to be a safe discussion space where men could talk about male issues.
The group quickly devolved to be, by all accounts, an unregistered student organization. Members of the group, predominantly heterosexual, cis-gendered men and generally from privileged background, were strictly forbidden from revealing that they were in the group to anyone including their friends and partners. At the height of its popularity, the group had around 20 members.
Though the general student population did not know who comprised the group, overall, the identities of individual members was an open secret. “We all had a rough idea who they were. This was at a time when the school was around 300 people and if you see a bunch of dudes shuffling somewhere at 11 at night, you know where they are going,” says an alumni who attended the College at the same time as these members.
Despite their later controversy, the group was originally focused on being a men’s dialogue group. According to Danny*, an ex-member who quit the group due to differences between personal values and the group’s mission, “At that time we understood that the group was invitation only and in the future we would extend the invitation to other people. In those days, we spent a lot of time talking about our feelings, male mental health issues, depression and how to get over it. We spent a lot of time talking about what it is to be a good person, how to give back to the school and things like that.”
“We had a rotating roster of people that would lead the meeting and we would begin by talking about our day and what has been bothering us that week before clicking our fingers and passing it to the next person. We also had a list of values that we focused on, values like empathy, loyalty, friendship, ambition and reciprocity.”
However, the group quickly gained notoriety not for their dialogues but because of their elaborate “reciprocation” — their method of giving back to the community. Envisioning themselves as benefactors of the Yale-NUS community, the group followed the principle ‘reciprocal giving’.
“The idea was that in order to do reciprocity it should be secret,” adds Danny*. Since the school was doing so much for its community, the group felt it to be their responsibility to give back, in secret, to make the whole affair more magical.
According to YNCyclopedia, an old student-run archive, the earliest record of the group and its reciprocity goes as far back as September 2013, when the group left books with hidden messages and their official stamp outside the suites of potential recruits and one of its recipients created a Facebook post about it.
Furthermore, the YNCyclopedia records one instance where, in 2014, they bought a large fir Christmas tree and hung ornaments embellished with students’ names on it.
In another incident in early 2016, the society bought 500 Penguin Classics books and gifted them to every student in the College, each with an individualized message.
The group also commissioned an artist to draw a painting of a bird, and hung it in one of the dining halls. The painting has since been taken down.
As far as The Octant could verify, the group used to pool their own money to fund all of their activities.
Starting with the inaugural cohort, the group recruited new students every year during Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW) and First-Year Orientation.
After scouting for students who would most fit the philosophy of the group, potential recruits would be notified via secret messages left at their doors before they were initiated into the society.
Recruits would then be made to complete a series of tasks to prove their “worthiness”, including writing an essay or engaging in daring acts to prove their bravery. For instance, one year they were supposedly made to walk across a graveyard at night.
In the final task, members of L.L would take the potential recruit, “a tap”, to the rail mall area, dressed in formal clothes and dress shoes. The tap would then have to walk across the line lit with candles before being formally initiated.
“It was all very cheesy and we knew it. But it also felt nice. All the members of the secret society would be there and would be congratulating you and welcoming you. It felt good,” adds Danny.
Afterwards, the group would then go for brunch together to seal their commitment.
According to Ben*, who was a tap shortly before the group disbanded, members of L.L would volunteer in EYW to scout for potential members.
In this instance, members of L.L took a group of potential freshpeople out of their EYW program to show them “a streamlined experience of Yale-NUS ” which included taking them to high-end rooftop bars and inviting them to on-campus parties.
When asked about this experience Ben* recalls, “It was all very strange. Definitely without question. During those three days, I think I barely slept for 3 hours overall. Amidst all of the parties and events, they also kept trying to make me commit to Yale-NUS.
“They kept asking me ‘How sure are you about committing to Yale-NUS? You should come, this school needs people like you.’
“In hindsight I can see that the power imbalance there was very problematic but at the moment, I consented to being there because I wanted to experience something. I wanted to feel power. I was in people’s cars, and in parties. To me, someone straight from high school, it was intoxicating.
“Here I was, not even in the school, and these seniors who all looked so cool were talking to me like I was a peer. To me it felt like these seniors were the ones who held power in the school, and by just associating with them, I was already ‘that dude’, at least in my mind.”
This sense of charisma and power seemed to be a common thread that attracted people to L.L, enabling them to conduct a lot of their negative activities as we see later on.
Although L.L’s idea of “reciprocity” was not necessarily bad, their actual activities were more insidious. Secret societies, which are a remnant of the elitist and toxic power structure in traditional colleges (the old boy’s club), do not follow the ethos of Yale-NUS. More specifically, any group where you enter because you are “worthy” as compared to the rest of your classmates, results in the division of the community into “us vs. them”.
Though the individuals of the group may have had strong friendships, the selection process underscored a very specific type of power. Even aside from exclusion of women and non-binary people, to enter this group you had to be a very specific kind of “alpha-male”, which is demonstrated in the ideals that the group held close.
L.L believed in the philosophy of “the hero’s journey”, which follows a “hero” through some kind of trial or adventure where, in a time of crisis, the hero wins a decisive victory and returns home transformed in some meaningful way (think Homer’s Odyssey).
The members of the society viewed themselves as exceptional individuals who had embarked on some version of their own collective hero’s journey — one that only had room for traditionally masculine men.
Hannah*, who was formerly close friends with several prominent members, said, “The group was about the idea of a hero, which is masculine in itself, who undergoes trials and triumphs and meets a heroine. They were obsessed with this idea of them being great men.
“Anything that happened to them fell into the narrative of the hero’s journey. If something bad happened, they saw that as ‘these are my trials, this is people misunderstanding me’ and they saw that as proof that they were on the right path.”
As Ben* says, “These people were living their lives but they were reading about these grand narratives and they wanted to fit their lives into these narratives to make their life seem bigger. Like their lives mattered.
“However, as it happens, in the selection of their members what they reinforced was toxic masculinity. What they wanted was a very particular mould of a guy. From their perspective it is a very impoverished Nietzschean philosophy they were trying to uphold.”
This tendency to philosophize was also reflected in some of their activities. According to one source, some members of the group apparently met to do a push up competition while watching the prison escape scene from the movie The Dark Knight Rises.
Though the group did debate on letting female members in, any vote about this issue would have usually ended up being vetoed by a member. According to Danny*, during the vote, “There was a discussion on male-only spaces. We talked about that quite a bit. There were some of us who wanted women to be allowed in but we were outvoted so those didn’t really go anywhere.”
According to Jane*, an alumni who was close to the members of the group, L.L was a flat power society, hence everyone had an equal say in the group’s activities. Thus, even if the majority of the members wanted to do something, if one or two members rejected the notion, the group would not continue with it.
Their decision to not include women was unsurprisingly based on a very patriarchal reason — as most of the members were straight men, adding women would “complicate” their group because it would increase the possibility of potential romantic relationships between the women and the original members. Non-binary folk were not even considered in the equation.
“When things become serious…” from Benign to Malicious:
However, not all the incidents traced back to the group were as benign or seemingly ‘benevolent’ as the ones mentioned above. The elite, all-male exclusionary atmosphere became a breeding ground for predatory activities.
In a few instances, the society’s actions violated students’ privacy. In October 2013, the group sent a mass text message to the entire student body that said, “The Lion welcomes you back. The Hunt Begins. XXIV”. In order to send this message, the group somehow gained access to students’ private phone numbers — information that only the College administration has access to — presumably through their work as student associates or influence in the administration.
In another, similarly eerie, violation of privacy, a video was screened to the college. The video was a compilation of footage edited in the style of surveillance footage from public spaces — elevators, lobbies and dining halls.
Privacy violations aside, the video used very threatening and predatory language, such as the repeated use of the word “hunt”. “It is time to watch closely. I do not hunt in the shadows. I do not hunt at night. I hunt where all of you can see me.” (The Octant has not been able to fully verify the validity of this information because of the secret nature of the society. Contrasting reports exist as to whether this was done by L.L itself or by other groups purporting to be L.L.)
The only push back against these blatant data violations was a statement issued by the Student Government in 2015, directed towards the society, which asked them to ‘cease and desist’ operations immediately. The statement was ignored.
Aside from reciprocity, the group also prided itself as being a “gentleman’s network.” “They purported themselves as becoming future powerful men in the world. The ultimate goal was that this would be a gentlemen’s club that would also be meeting 20 years in the future and was a network of powerful members,” says Lola* who was a close friend of several group members.
This obsession with retaining power often manifested in toxic ways of interaction even within the group, where members allegedly would involve themselves in dictating the romantic relationships of other members. The group members would then get very invested in beginning and breaking up the relationships of other members.
Any member who was then seen as being less committed to the group would be isolated by other members. This was very effective in controlling any rebellious members, as they would live in a fear of being abandoned by their “brothers” and not being able to access this “gentleman’s network” in the future.
Their other problems, arguably even more insidious, came in the form of sexual misconduct, harassment and even sexual violence against female students at Yale-NUS. On one occasion, members of L.L followed a female student around campus in order to set her up on a date with a founding member of the society who was interested in her.
The woman in question, Lily*, says, “I was told that they started tracking where I was, so that he could accidentally bump into me. The second time I met him was at a party, and apparently he had known I would be there, but he pretended not to know me.” Lily added that ultimately it was her that asked the member to meet her, in a completely platonic capacity. However, he misinterpreted it as a romantic gesture and told everyone that he was the one who asked her out.
Hannah* corroborated this incident, “He tells me this long story of how he and some other members of the society mapped out where she would be on Saturday or Sunday night. So that he could run into her and ‘casually’ and ask her out. And they succeeded in that. After the second time they met, when he had been intending on having sex with her, I found him sleeping on the floor. He said he didn’t deserve the bed because he wasn’t victorious [in seducing her].”
Hannah mentioned another conversation with a member where she called him out for sounding like a rapist after he made predatory remarks about Lily*. According to her, he replied with “that’s amazing” and wrote it down in his journal.
Besides this, prominent members of the L.L also notoriously arranged parties that were predatory in nature, seemingly derived from American fraternity culture.
Jane* said, ”They did not host parties as the secret society since it was ‘secret’, but you definitely noticed that a lot of the party-hosts on campus were from L.L…”
The parties would happen in their suites, where those in attendance (mostly women whom the members found attractive) were asked to reveal personal information about themselves while inebriated, in order to access the different sections of the party. According to Hannah*, the L.L men themselves would remain largely sober during these events, but encourage the women to drink, engage in sexual activities and reveal personal information.
The predatory nature of these parties was reinforced by the demographic of men in that room. Most of them were upperclassmen and well-regarded in the community, holding positions in key campus institutions. Socially, their roles on campus added to the power dynamic between them and the women.
“These men had all this information about people — there were stories about being cheated on, or stories of people who had to strip to get by. And they had all this information, and it felt very intentional and they revelled in it. They set up these parties to get a lot of women drunk and get all this information. It was just a whole big scam,” said Hannah*.
Despite these severe transgressions, the only information that the majority of the administration has about the secret society was obtained through rumors. When The Octant reached out to Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs), and Tan Tai Yong, President of the College, for comments, all three denied knowing anything about the group.
“I have checked our records to see if any formal complaints were made, and there aren’t any. Though I have heard rumors, we haven’t gotten any formal documentation, which makes investigation difficult,” says Mr. Tan. “However, the college has zero tolerance for any misconduct relating to harassment and bullying, hence if we get any complaints regarding individuals we will investigate immediately.”
However, although the current administration claims to not know much about L.L, interviewees repeatedly underscored that there were some administrators, such as DFs and professors, who knew about L.L to varying degrees. That is, though they knew about the book giving, they did not know about the alleged sexual misconduct of its individual members.
Arguably, this was because these men were typically well-liked and charismatic individuals, and the general administration and faculty might have found it difficult to imagine the more nefarious activities that they conducted in their private sphere.
Thinking that they were still the self-help group they purported to be at the start, some faculty may even have provided a degree of guidance and access to spaces (such as classrooms) for their group meetings.
However, this little connection was enough to provide the group with their symbolic power, especially over the women hurt by them.
Hannah explained why the victims did not feel like they were able to access institutional support. “We understood that a lot of people were giving them support like free space, allowing them to do activities on campus, allowing them to put up pictures or do activities in secret. It didn’t feel like we had anonymity. It didn’t feel like we had full support from the school. These boys were very well-liked by the faculty and staff and got a lot of power from them.”
Even among the student body, the general reaction towards this group at the time seemed to be of general apathy. Despite releasing a cease and desist letter later on, initially the Student Government too did not come to the aid of the students who felt violated. As an excerpt from a Student Government newsletter in 2015 addressing student complaints about the group’s violation of privacy stated:
“Several students have raised that the privacy concerns brought up by other students may have been exaggerated, although they understand that such fears arise because of the group’s anonymity. They hope that students will be appreciative of L.L’s contributions to the college, which include their generous giving of books and Christmas trees last semester.”
The group was affluent enough to buy sympathy from the student body. As they showered the student body with gifts, most people were fooled to look the other way with regards to their other transgressions. This resulted in a fractured student body, some who affectionately referred to the group as “Mr. Lion” and others who were directly affected by their toxicity.
As tensions rose between the group members and the affected individuals, the bonds between the members itself also frayed. According to Danny*, there was very little internal accountability in the group. He said, “We were talking about charity, but at the same time a lot of people were doing things on an individual basis that I did not agree with. We talked about how the group can contribute to the community but we found it difficult to talk about individual accountability.”
He states that though incidents such as the parties and the harassment were done by individuals who were in the society, the larger group didn’t know what was happening. However, as news of the incidents spread, members began questioning their commitment to L.L.
Additionally, at this point, some members of the group were approached by closer friends who were concerned not only for their well-being, but for the well-being of the greater Yale-NUS community and the impact the group was having on it. These concerned friends contributed to a few of the group members’ realizations about the extent of harm they were causing and eventually convinced them to quit the group.
Ultimately, the society was not forced to disband until a sexual assault case surfaced against one of its members. Once the disciplinary process began, it incited a wave of panic amongst the members of the society, who feared the possibility of accountability. This fear acted as the catalyst for the formal disbandment of the organization.
According to Danny, “Our group was accused of being linked to a campus case of sexual assault. At this time, no one knew the details of what had happened. A female friend pulled me aside and told me that there were reports of multiple cases and members of the group were accused. I was shocked.”
“We had an immediate meeting regarding the accusations. The leader of that meeting started off with a statement making it clear that we do not condone this behavior, before we even discussed the accusations. We asked for the person responsible to step up but no one did. It was then I realized that I didn’t know what accountability would be in a group situation. Were we all responsible as a group for the accusations? Or were we responsible only as individuals? I didn’t know,” adds Danny*.
Most of the prominent members of the secret society graduated in 2017 and 2018, and the many members of the College’s administration have also changed since then.
However, it is important to note that some of these individuals (the members of the society) are still on campus and maintain connections with one another. Unfortunately, when reached out to for comment, the vast majority either refused to speak to us or threatened us with expensive lawsuits.
L.L was formed at the inception of Yale-NUS, when the College was still figuring out its identity in relation to its parental institutions — Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Among the inaugural cohort, there was a desire to link Yale-NUS to its parents, resulting in the import of many new traditions — butteries, Latin Honours, and secret societies. It is no secret that Leones Luminantes were influenced a lot by their more established cousin, The Skull and Bones Society at Yale.
However, unlike Yale which is established in terms of its policies and history, Yale-NUS at the time was still a fledgling institution whose policies had yet to mature, and accidentally created the perfect conditions for a group like L.L to rise.
We have come a long way from the administrative failure that plagued us during the existence of this group. We must not forget that before 2018, our sexual misconduct policy was not nearly as robust or defined as it is today. This change is directly due to the actions of students involved in communities such as Take Back The Night, Kingfishers for Consent, as well as members of the Dean of Students’ (DOS) Office and senior administration.
Additionally, the DOS Office is also working on updating sexual misconduct policies to help victims in situations of general predatory behavior, as conducted by the members of the group. According to Mr. Stanfield, “We are currently exploring the implementation of an alternative resolution channel. We’ve recently formed a committee and now trying to find best practices to implement in Yale-NUS.”
“We want to create a second option for students who don’t want to go through the formal process that is quite long and involves formal investigations. Usually this is for instances where a survivor feels like whatever it was that happened to them did not warrant the formal filing.”
“For example, if it was something that was not serious enough and the survivor imagined it would not end in suspension for the perpetrator, they might take up this alternative option to rehabilitate and identify harm.
“It’s important for students to have a variety of options to respond to incidents of sexual misconduct. As we work on additional options, students will be able to choose which option they feel will best address and respond to the harm that they have experienced. Each process will be different in its approach and may have different outcomes.
“Our formal process will stay intact and we will be adding in multiple adaptable resolution options as well. The adaptable resolutions will allow students to have increased say about the direction and outcomes of the cases that they bring forward. Each process has different merits and staff will be able to work with students to discuss which process will best address their needs.”
However, though the policies regarding academic and sexual misconduct are very clearly laid out, the same treatment does not apply to policies regarding issues of bullying or violation of privacy. Rather, the disciplinary policies page only offers generic answers.
The College states that “individual circumstances often call for individual approaches,” and instead heavily emphasizes that student conduct policies should be targeted towards “keeping our community safe, inclusive, and respectful.”
As a newly established college, Yale-NUS has the opportunity to put out progressive policies without any historical baggage — something larger and older institutions like Yale might struggle with.
In writing this article, we mean in no way to shame or discredit anyone. Our intention is to illustrate an issue that has deeply affected our campus, and encourage readers to dwell on what our community is and how we can make it better.
This history of L.L serves as a cautionary tale to the Yale-NUS community. Not only is there a need to update these policies, we must also dispel the notion that we are a special community immune to problems such as toxic masculinity and elitism. Some of the pitfalls that resulted in an extreme group such as L.L forming on campus still exist today.
As the record keeper of the community, The Octant recognizes its role in keeping our history — the good and the bad — alive. By keeping this history on record, we hope that our community recognizes that as great as the benefits of a small and well-connected college are, there is also a need to be vigilant in our judgement.
*names have been redacted and anonymized due to privacy concerns
This piece has been in the works for almost a year, and has benefited greatly from the diligent efforts of our business team who keep us afloat, and our copy and design team who ensure the professionality in every issue. Thank you to Jasmine Su, former staff editor, for her work in the initial stages of this article. We would like to thank Alysha Chanda, former editor-in-chief, and Michael Sagna, staff editor, for their help in organizing our article, as well as our faculty advisor Professor Eduardo Lage-Otero for his support throughout. Special thanks to Mr. Tom Benner who has been a great mentor to us! We would also like to thank the Public Affairs department and the administration, especially Mr. Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, who has been very supportive of our investigation. Finally, we extend our greatest gratitude to all the interviewees–this article would not have been complete without the help of Jane, Hannah, Lola, Lily, Ben and Danny and everyone else who guided us to the information throughout.