Being a bully

While much has been written about the suffering of victims, what is it that drives bullies to unleash torment onto others? Two former bullies offer their experiences of what drove them to victimise their fellow schoolmates

Given the trauma they have been through, victims of bullying often think that their tormentors are unfeeling monsters who dole out cruelty for the sake of it. However, in most cases, the bullies themselves tend to be dealing with their own trauma, albeit in unproductive ways.

“Looking back, I was definitely a bully in secondary school,” says Ismail Ghani, an IT consultant in his 40s. “Being a bully was a method of survival in my school; it was like being thrown into the lion’s den, you either had to learn to run really fast, or try and adapt.”

Ismail’s former secondary school was a notorious one in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1990s, known for weekly gang-fights and students vandalising teachers’ cars. Located in a rough neighbourhood, some of the school’s students had connections with real gangs in the area, and came from troubled family backgrounds. Many of the children were used to seeing scenes of violence unfold in their daily lives, both at home and in their everyday surroundings.

“Watching your home turned upside down by the police was normal, and having your older sibling being hauled off in handcuffs was something that gave you street cred,” explains Ismail.  “Formal authority, such as the cops, let alone the school principal, was not to be trusted; how could you when the authorities weren’t seen to be a source of help when you needed it?”

Growing up in a lower-income household himself, Ismail says his parents did their best to help him focus on his studies in a bid to escape the trap of poverty. Relying on his school to provide this foundation of academia however, felt futile. “When you’re lining up for the morning assembly, and the person behind you says that he’s going to smash your legs in at the end of the day, how can you possibly concentrate in class? Even some of the teachers were scared of these guys, what more a scrawny 14-year-old,” says Ismail, with a laugh.

After being beaten up by his seniors a few times, Ismail decided on novel coping technique to avoid the abuse – by befriending the bullies. Having a gained a sense of belonging by associating himself with one of the school gangs, he soon became a bully himself by picking on younger students to “assert his dominance”. Ismail thinks the main cause of his physical abuse against fellow students was his way venting these frustrations because he knew of no other way to channel his angst.

“We were in a troubled school to begin with. There was no one we could really talk to at home, because our parents were very conservative and tried to exercise a lot of restraint. So we rebelled. We had to act tough because we thought that was the way to survive. But deep down inside, we just felt lost,” he says.

However, Ismail is quick to point out that his reasoning of why some resort to bullying is any excuse for the behaviour. “I just think that for many troubled teens, particularly boys, it boils down to having a poor coping mechanism for dealing with their own issues. After all, it’s much easier to take your anger out on someone else rather than working on fixing what’s really wrong with your life. What complicates in doing the latter is that some of these things are beyond your control – having abusive families, growing up in poverty, or being terrorised by violence yourself. That said, I believe that you are in control of your own actions, that’s all on you,” he says.

When asked of what became of his friends from school, Ismail says that many of them had turned over a new leaf and are now successful individuals. “The irony is, the boys we used to pick on the most are now loan sharks and petty thugs. I can’t help but feel that maybe we left such a drastic impact on them, they just snapped and went downhill from there.”

Further commenting on the fatal cases of bullying reported earlier this year, Ismail adds that the normalisation of bullying as something every child has gone through has contributed to the severity of the cases happening these days. “We may have threatened to ‘break bones’, but it was mostly just talk; we feared the consequences of causing that much harm to someone else. People tend to forget that these bullies are kids too. They should face the consequences of their actions, but at the same time, we should ask ourselves where all that rage is coming from and why,” he says.

Being a mean girl

In the film “Mean Girls”, protagonist Cady Heron suddenly finds herself navigating the complex social hierarchy of high school after being home-schooled. Almost immediately, she gets a rundown of the laws of popularity — as well as the ill-effects of being deemed at outcast — when she befriends the elite clique led by fellow student Regina George. Ruthless and cunning, Regina’s character has gone down in pop culture history for being the ultimate queen bee.

“I think the film is an accurate portrayal of how bullying works among girls, at least it felt that way at my secondary school,” says Amanda Teh. “There were no kicks or punches — no one actually laid a hand on each other physically. Instead, you have manipulation, shaming, and backbiting. And I was a big part of the problem myself — I was Regina George.”

In contrast to Ismail’s experience, Teh went to a school that was firmly rooted in an affluent middle-class suburb. “From the outside, it looked like a really good schooling environment; we had nice facilities, the school’s academics looked great, there were fun extracurricular activities. But behind the scenes, there was a fair bit of meanness going on depending on the circles you were in. If you were unfortunate enough to be at the bottom of the pole, there was a high chance of being a target,” she says,

Currently completing a degree in mass communications, Teh says she has come a long way from the person she was in school. As a prefect and model student, Teh was part of the popular crowd although she cannot quite explain how she found herself at the top of the pack. “For some reason, the other girls would hang on my every word — that was a real power trip for me. I would tell them to skip classes, give me money, and pull pranks on others. They would do them just to get my approval.”

From there, Teh found increasingly manipulative ways to wield her power over others. “There was no real formula to this; it’s like, I’d just decide one day that someone was not cool enough. What this meant was no one else would speak to that girl — I could make her feel completely invisible. Or if I really didn’t like someone, I’d pass gossip about her, or call her a nasty nickname that would stick with her,” she says.

She recalls a time when she made a classmate burst into tears by repeatedly calling her ugly and stupid. “I eventually stopped, but the others continued the taunts. I don’t think she dared to even complain to the teachers; I was so good and polite in front of them, they wouldn’t have believed her. Looking back, I really regret doing that, because she became really quiet and withdrawn till the last day of school,” says Teh.

Teh takes a long pause when asked why she chose to bully fellow students. “I honestly don’t have a good reason except that I was insecure myself,” she says. “At the start of school, I had really low self-confidence, and suddenly I become popular. It sounds weird, but despite all the new attention, I was still very anxious about being liked. I also had a lot of pressure to appear perfect all the time, and just transferred that angst onto those poor girls.”

Since then, Teh has tried reaching out to her former schoolmates to apologise for her past behaviour. “Some responded rather well, others not so much,” she says. One girl told me in great detail how I made her entire schooling a nightmare, and the social anxiety she developed from it. I don’t expect to be forgiven, and I wish I could take it all back. All I can hope for now is that those girls don’t have permanent scars from what I put them through.”

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