The nightmare started when she was first isolated, excluded and cyber-bullied by her classmates in secondary school.
Instead of speaking out or seeking help, Rabi, now 19, tried to wait out the taunting. She recalled to The Pride: “They would say really mean things about me, and hurtful comments towards me. It started from one person, and began to spread through social media, from Twitter to Facebook, at that time.”
It was only after a teacher noticed that she was always alone, even during recess breaks and in class, that Rabi’s ordeal came to an end after a few months. The bullies and victim were brought in for counselling, and the teacher also seized the opportunity to teach the class about the wrongs of bullying behaviour.
Rabi’s brush with bullying is not an isolated case, going by the findings of a 2015 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In a survey of 15-year-olds across 50 countries and economies, 14.5 per cent of teenage respondents from Singapore reported being frequently bullied.
The study also looked at bullying across six different behaviours: being left out, made fun of, threatened, having property taken by other students, being hit and having nasty rumours spread about them.
Based on an aggregated score, Singapore was found to have the third highest rate of bullying in the world, behind only Latvia and New Zealand.
Whether or not these statistics paint a complete picture of the state of bullying in Singapore, Singapore Children’s Society’s Ann Hui Peng felt it was essential to take certain factors into consideration. For example, the definition of bullying used in the survey could have been interpreted differently by youth respondents from different cultures, and while frequency was measured, the youths were not asked about the severity of the acts of bullying they faced.
The director of SCS’ Student Service Hub (Bukit Merah) told The Pride: “The effects of bullying may differ depending on both frequency and severity.”
In a response to The Straits Times, Singapore’s education ministry has expressed a no-tolerance policy towards bullying in schools.
A spokesperson stated that there are ongoing efforts to raise awareness of bullying in schools and provide safe channels for students to seek help, such as dedicated online platforms and swift follow-ups on reported cases.
Since pioneering cyber wellness programmes in Singapore in 2001, Poh Yeang Cherng has delivered countless talks on cyber wellness and media literacy to young students in local schools.
In his experience, broaching the topic of cyberbullying elicits two types of reactions: “There are youths who are desensitised to the issue. Their typical reaction is – what’s the big deal? Get a life and move on. That’s the group that’s generally apathetic and desensitised.
“But there’s also the other group who are new to the idea of bullying, and they’re taken aback and disturbed to learn about it.”
Online, a lack of face-to-face contact makes it hard to empathise and sense how others are feeling. In Poh’s view, this makes it easy to go beyond the pain point, resulting in cyberbullying.
Nurturing cognitive empathy is key to his anti-bullying education efforts, in addition to shedding light on its serious repercussions, and how the students can help if they see someone being cyberbullied.
“We use case studies to guide them to think through how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes, even if they can’t see their reaction or feel it.”
In rehabilitating bullying behaviours, Ann observed that while punishment can help, it is even more important to address the underlying motivations.
“Counselling does facilitate this process as it helps a child understand his intent, the impact his action has on the victim and alternative actions he can adopt.”
Citing the need for parents and schools to work together to weed out bullying behaviours, she said: “Parents should instill positive values, affirm a child for efforts to change, praise a child for improvements, and also model good behaviour. Disciplinary action is subject to schools’ and MOE’s discretion.”
Ann also called for a robust approach to the problem, saying: “All parties should be mindful that a bully is also a child in need of help.”
In the case of 15-year-old Roy, his parents’ divorce triggered him to bully his schoolmates when he was only in Primary 5.
“I found enjoyment in hurting people… Maybe it was because of my family problems, but eventually, I realised that I couldn’t use that as an excuse.”
The turning point came in secondary school when a classmate he couldn’t get along with poked fun at his parents’ divorce. He recalled: “It made me realise how bad it felt when I said similar things to others.”
While Roy is adamant that the boys’ school he attends does not make much of an effort to educate the students about bullying and inculcate positive behaviour, he professed to being in the process of cutting out the acts of bullying he used to revel in, thanks to a few friends who sat him down and told him to cut it out.
“My teachers punished me, caned me, again and again. Nothing really helped. I don’t think there’s a proper solution, other than maturing and finding good friends who are good influences.
“It’s less about the textbooks and talks, but more about the role models you see in real life, your peers, and your mental capacity to not succumb to peer pressure to be a bully.”
Aware that a child’s involvement in school is not limited to how much they learn in class, 45-year-old Serina Chiang always makes it a point to enquire about her children’s social lives during parent-teacher meetings, and not just on their academic progress.
Chiang, who has two children aged 11 and 13, told The Pride: “I’ll ask (the teachers) if they noticed my children having trouble making friends, and very often the teachers will know because they are able to observe what goes on in school.”
By and large, Chiang maintains confidence that schools are doing their part to help weed out bullying and ensure that young victims know where to turn to for help.
Even so, she sees the importance of parents practising open communication with their children, so the children know they can go to them for help.
She explained: “We always tell the kids that whatever it is they’re going through – whether they’re afraid, or having a hard time, or find themselves in any trouble – to come and talk to us instead of keeping it to themselves.”
Looking back on how she was victimised in secondary school, Rabi said: “In hindsight, I think I would have suffered less if I had just brought (the bullying) up to someone earlier. I knew where to go, but I was too embarrassed to do so.”
On what it would take to stop youth bullying, she pointed to a need to reflect on the impact of one’s words and actions before saying or doing anything.
“I think people should think before they speak. When we’re young, we’re a bit more reckless, we may do things without thinking, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”