Recent high-profile cases of bullying have once again sparked a national conversation of the problem. Priya Kulasagaran looks the extent of the issue, and speaks to both former victims and bullies about their experiences
The grainy 11-minute video clip uploaded onto to YouTube, clearly recorded on a mobile phone, is shocking from the start. A group of girls, aged between 15 to 16-years-old, tower over a younger girl in a classroom while pulling at her clothes and yanking her hair.
“Kiss my foot, doesn’t it taste good,” says one older girl, as she forces her foot into the victim’s face. As the video plays on, the younger girl cries as she gets repeatedly kicked and smacked. The cries only earn the laughter of the others, with one removing her socks to stuff them into the victim’s mouth. Eventually, the young victim seems resigned to her fate, merely staring at the floor as her tormentors shove her to the ground and forcefully cut her hair. Finally, the abuse stops, and the victim has her headscarf returned to her. The other girls offer a parting shot before the video ends: “That is all, thank you”.
You may have forgotten this news story — after all, this incident happened in 2013. In fact, you may have even forgotten the incidents of last year; such as the video recording of a boy being beaten with a plastic chair and choked by his schoolmate in Sabah, or the nine-year-old boy who reportedly cut his own tongue after being pressured to do so by his peers. In the latter case, the police ultimately ruled that the boy may have injured his tongue by accident, although his mother refuted this explanation.
Stories of school-based violence such as this seem to be on a tired, repeated playlist every year: an incident will attract national interest, usually through social media and subsequently the press, leading to widespread public uproar. Politicians and government officials will come out to make strongly-worded statements against bullying, and sometimes the police will get involved. The perpetrators are swiftly dealt with, and the hand-wringing over just what is happening to our children in schools slowly dies down.
That is, until the next incident starts reboots the cycle all over again. As the tragic deaths of Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain and T Nhaveen earlier this year illustrate, sometimes the uproar arrives all too late for the victims involved.
A public health problem
According to Malaysian Psychological Association president Dr Goh Chee Leong, bullying is “an act of purposeful cruelty”, be it physical, verbal or psychological. A long-time advocate of child mental health issues, he adds, in his paper on the psychosocial impacts of violence and bullying on children, that victims of bullying may well end up becoming bullies themselves if their anger over being targets is left unresolved.
Dr Goh has further pointed out that “institutionalised bullying” can also occur in environments where the problem is not seen as a serious one. Commenting in The Star, he points out that ragging that occurs in school dorms and universities “is almost semi-encouraged through the prefects, senior students and hostel wardens to teach and ‘discipline’ the juniors.”
Until the 1970s, there was no real research on the phenomenon of bullying. Following several high-profile suicides of schoolchildren in Norway, psychologist Dr Dan Olweus was moved to carry out an in-depth study on bullying in schools.
Researchers have recently started looking into the “bystander effect” of bullying — in other words, the audience present at the moment such incidents occur. Some studies suggest that bullies, who may have problems with aggression and control, are in their own twisted way seeking attention by tormenting their victims. This may well explain the popularity of bullies, despite them, to their own detriment, posting up video clips of themselves tormenting their victims.
Although suicides by victims are much rarer than it would appear, there is plenty of evidence that bullying does increase suicide risk among young people. Additionally, victims of bullying often suffer poor academic performance, depression, and diminished self-confidence – often, these psychological problems can last long after they have left school.
On the flipside, bullies themselves are affected by their actions; they tend to have higher rates of delinquency, substance abuse, and depression. A study of Korean schoolchildren for instance, found that female students who were bullies had high rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviour just like their victims.
Considering the latest numbers of just how many children are affected by bullying worldwide, it is no wonder that more countries are classifying the problem as serious public health issue.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) latest report on School Violence and Bullying, some 246 million children and youth experience school-based violence every year. The report, published in January, defines bullying as not just physical aggression, but also verbal insults, destruction of property, as well as social exclusion. “Bullying constitutes a pattern of behaviour rather than isolated incidents, and it often gets worse if it is unchallenged,” the report adds.
Commenting on the root causes of bullying, the report states that widespread social norms as well as power imbalances present in the broader social structure can contribute to the problem. As a result, those who fail to live up to the prevalent norms may be prime targets for bullying — for example, the boy who is not seen as being “manly” enough, or the young girl who is differently-abled.
It further notes that schools, which are themselves a microcosm of society at large, may be unwittingly teaching children to act as aggressors towards their more vulnerable peers. “Schools themselves can “teach” children to be violent through discriminatory practices, curricula and textbooks. If unchecked, gender discrimination and power imbalances in schools can encourage attitudes and practices that subjugate children, uphold unequal gender norms and tolerate violence, including corporal punishment… For example, physical and sexual violence may be more prevalent in schools in contexts where it is also more prevalent in wider society,” the report states.
In Malaysia, statistics from the Education Ministry show that there were over 14,000 reported cases of bullying between 2012 to 2015. In 2015, 2,968 cases were reported compared with 2,825 cases in 2014 and 4,120 in 2013.
Punishment or support?
To say that Malaysians were shocked by the death of 18-year-old T Nhaveen in June would be an understatement. The fresh-faced young man from Penang was not only beaten by his former school bullies with helmets and sticks, but was also forcibly sodomised with a foreign object. As news of his death emerged, coupled with heartbreaking pictures of his mother wailing in anguish, the horror of what had happened to him seemed too much to bear.
By all accounts, Nhaveen appeared to be targeted by his bullies for the “crime” of simply being different from their idea of how a “real man” should be. The infraction that pushed the bullies to such viciousness was simply that Nhaveen’s friend had dared to speak up against their verbal assaults.
It did not help that just two weeks earlier, another young man was reported as another fatal victim of bullying: Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia navy cadet Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain. The 21-year-old was tortured for days — bound, beaten, and burnt with an iron — by a gang of his course mates. By the time he was taken to hospital, 80% of his body was reportedly covered in second and third-degree burns.
To his bullies, Zulfarhan’s purportedly “grave” infraction was to be suspected of stealing a laptop.
The outpouring of grief and anger over these cases was not limited to everyday Malaysians. Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S Subramaniam called upon the authorities to take more drastic action against the “poisonous culture” of bullying and gangsterism in schools. Meanwhile, Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid outlined the serious implications of those caught bullying, saying that gang leaders would not only be suspended for six months, but also risk police involvement.
However, do such serious punitive measures really work in addressing the problem on a larger scale? Newer evidence indicates that zero-tolerance policies may be in fact counterproductive.
One such report was published last year by the United States’ National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report, prepared by a panel of experts, stresses that while bullying should not be dismissed as “kids being kids”, schools should not condone zero-tolerance policies where students are automatically suspended for bullying.
Aside from leading to the underreporting of bullying due to severe punishments, zero-tolerance policies could cause more harm as they do not address the root causes of bullying. Instead, the report concludes that there is a stronger case for anti-bullying programmes that support preventive measures and supportive interventions.
What remains to be seen is whether we as a society are able to stem the violence in schools without resorting to violence ourselves. A case in point was the level of rage by Malaysians online over Nhaveen’s case, who were out for blood in the name of justice. The families of the young men accused of Nhaveen’s murder have claimed that they were struggling to gain legal representation, as lawyers were wary of taking up the case. It took the Malaysian Bar Council president to assure them that due process will be adhered to, with the help of court-appointed lawyers for the defendants.
“Everyone is quick to blame the schools, the authorities, the families of bullies, but few want to consider their own role in perpetuating this sort of culture,” says a school counsellor who only wants to be known as Baizi. “We all have to do our part in not encouraging violence or victimising people just because they are different. You see politicians getting away with making racial remarks, you see teachers discriminating students who don’t conform to ‘normal’ gender roles, you see Malaysians committing acts of road rage every day. Simply saying ‘stop bullying’ will not help, the change needs to happen when we can all have some empathy for each other, regardless of our differences.”