Fill Me In
Bullying in Singapore has received a large amount of media attention lately, highlighting the gaps in our education system that have failed to protect students from school bullying. Cases that have surfaced point to students from minority racial groups and those suffering from learning disabilities as victims of school bullying among others.
Bullying Climate in Singapore
Back in 2015, a study conducted by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) named Singapore as the country with the third-highest rate of bullying in the world.
As part of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), updated results from the study are released every three years. The most recent study in 2018 highlights little improvement in the bullying situation in Singapore, as 26 per cent of students indicated that they had been bullied in school a few times a month.
Education Minister Criticises Mee Toh School Students for Racial Bullying
Earlier in March this year, a widely-circulated Twitter post detailed the bullying of a primary five Malay student, Falisyah, whose elder sibling had taken to Twitter to document the bullying her sister was being put through.
Hurtful insults were written on notes and thrown in Falisyah’s face as a “birthday present”. There were also occasions where she came home with her school uniform vandalised by markers and was insulted with racist remarks.
The elder sibling also called out her sister’s school for failing to take action against bullying, and eventually named Mee Toh School as the school in question, causing a frenzy on social media.
Minister of Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung posted on Facebook addressing the issues of bullying. Ong also stressed that “Our values of kindness, respect for others, cohesiveness as a multi-racial society must be inculcated from a young age… This should be a lesson for all students to learn from.”
13-year-old Singaporean Teen Attempts Suicide due to Bullying
In January 2019, Jessie Tan (Pseudonym used to protect the student’s identity) who was then 12 going on 13 years old, started her secondary school education. Within just two months at her new school, Jessie became a target of extreme bullying, prompting the decline of her mental health, which eventually resulted in her suicide attempt.
It had started with cyber-bullying. Jessie was viciously insulted for having a learning disability. A group of boys from her school taunted and insulted her on the anonymous messaging app, Tellonym, calling her “slut”, “bitch”, and “idiot” and asking her to kill herself. And in no time, the bullying had escalated to verbal assaults and even physical violence.
In a letter to the Prime Minister that has since circulated on Facebook, Jessie listed the various abuses imposed upon her by her bullies. She recounted being spat on and called a “Dyslexic F***” by the group, and several instances where she was physically abused. Once, a bully threw an object at her face, which caused her to bleed. Another hit her on the head, and one bully tried to kick her between the legs.
According to Jessie’s mother, Mrs Tan, the bullying crippled Jessie’s confidence, leaving her to withdraw from her school friends. While the circuit breaker provided her with much-needed breathing space and kept her free from her attackers, when it was the time to return to physical lessons, the fear of having to face her bullies again prompted Jessie to attempt suicide by overdosing on painkillers.
Following her suicide attempt and the school’s lack of action against her bullies, Jessie penned a letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong detailing her experience as a victim of bullying and urging PM Lee to take greater strides to tackle bullying in Singapore.
Her letter has since prompted a response from the Ministry of Education, claiming that Jessie’s former school has sent “a firm message to students that any form of bullying is not acceptable”.
Lack of Action Against Bullying in Schools
In both the cases of Jessie Tan and Mee Toh School, the main question that has circulated online is “What action did the schools take against the bullies?”
According to Mrs Tan, Jessie’s school (unnamed to protect Jessie’s identity) had done nothing. She had reported her daughter’s bullying earlier on when it first began in March 2019 to Jessie’s teacher, who assured her that the school would investigate the matter.
Mrs Tan later discovered that Jessie’s teacher left the school at the end of 2019, and the school claimed that no reports had been lodged by her teacher.
To make matters worse, the discipline master repeatedly delayed addressing the matter, claiming that Jessie’s perpetrator was going through a tough time digesting the news of his father’s illness and then passing. The fact that exams were approaching were also prioritised above the discipline of the bullies.
Similarly, the Mee Toh School incident saw little action taken by the school despite emails being sent to the school and MOE, as well as the victim’s older sibling attending parent-teacher conferences to confront teachers.
Instead, the victim of bullying was reportedly told to publicly apologise to her perpetrators and was punished after scolding vulgarities in retaliation against her bullies. When the victim’s mother asked if her daughter could change classes due to the bullying, her teacher had said that it was not possible, and instead recommended that she switch schools instead.
While the extent of bullying in local schools appears to be a revelation to some, the inaction and insensitivity of schools in handling such bullying cases come as an even greater shock. Teachers interviewed explained that there is no straightforward solution to tackling bullying in schools, as bullying often takes place outside of the classroom, making it difficult to catch the bullies red-handed.
While this may be true, the lack of support shown to victims of bullying in these cases have been a grave disappointment.
President Halimah Yacob: Safe Spaces for Students with Mental Health Problems
President Halimah Yacob has spoken out on the lack of support provided to students by educational institutions, highlighting that Singapore has a long way to go when it comes to creating safe spaces for students with mental health problems.
“We need to provide a safe environment for the students, for them to feel that it’s okay [to say], ‘I have a mental health problem, I can seek help and I will get the help and I will be able to continue to perform well,” said Madam Halimah.
How to Get Help
Echoing the president’s words, the most important thing for victims of bullying is to find the courage to seek help.
For younger students, Bullyfree@Children’s Society provides information that helps older ones – adults, siblings, teachers, mentors, etc. – understand bullying, and provides various helplines and links for individuals who need guidance with bullying problems.
Their online chat function, Tinkle Friend, however, is only meant for primary school students to seek help. Older students can also seek help via the Tinkle Friend Helpline: 1800-2744-788.
Other anti-bullying organisations include the Coalition Against Bullying of Children and Youth (CABCY). It provides a variety of services from anti-bullying talks and workshops, parent consultations and e-consultations as well as research and publications that help individuals understand bullying and how to respond to it.
Polytechnic and University students can also seek support from the student counsellors available on campus, and communicate their problems to their professors and lecturers, to make special arrangements to seek help and accommodate their studies.
Regardless, there is a lot more we can do to tackle the bullying issue in Singapore. Changing the bullying climate in Singapore can only happen if we allow students to feel comfortable standing up for themselves. And for that to happen, we will have to approach victims of bullying with a lot more empathy than we have right now.