2 S'poreans talk about being bullied as 'awkward' teens despite confronting & scolding bullies

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Guan Zhen Tan | Sumita Thiagarajan | December 24, 2020, 10:11 AM

PERSPECTIVE: Bullying has been a recurring problem in schools in Singapore.

On Dec. 17, we shared the story of Jessie Tan (not her real name), a 14-year-old dyslexic student suffered vicious bullying at the hands of boys from her school in Singapore.

Two of our writers, Sumita Thiagarajan and Guan Zhen Tan, share about their experiences being bullied in school, and what they did in response to the bullying.

How long were you bullied for?

S: One year when I was 13, in Secondary One.

GZ: Four to five years? I believe the first experiences probably started around Primary Three or Four, and lasted till Secondary Two.

What happened and what were some incidences?

S: It started in Secondary One when I was posted to a girls’ school in northeast Singapore.

I did not know anyone from this school, as opposed to quite a few of the girls, who were from an affiliated primary school.

I was quite a studious student, and always been a bit awkward. I struggled to interact with my peers — teachers would sometimes highlight that I was a good student, which was generally seen as 'uncool' among teenagers.

I also had very bushy eyebrows and always had my hair pulled back in an unflattering hairstyle.

While I don't remember specific comments made by the bully, there were a few times in secondary school when people made sarcastic remarks about my eyebrows or looks after I decided to change the way I looked.

After a spat with a classmate, Natasha* (not her real name), I unfortunately found transparent liquid glue all over my desk at the start of a mathematics lesson. I had unknowingly set down a paper on the desk and had to carefully remove it after it got stuck to the desk.

For the rest of that lesson, I participated in the class with my math book on my lap.

Did you tell anyone about it?

S: Even when the math teacher asked about it, I didn’t tell her why and just said it was my preference.

I definitely didn’t want to seem 'weak' in front of Natasha who snickered after she realised I discovered the glue on my desk.

Also picked on for appearances and behaviour

GZ: Looking back, I feel that a large reason as to why I was bullied was that I was an incredibly awkward kid who doesn’t really have a high EQ or proper social skills.

I didn’t fit in very well, and probably acted and reacted to other people weirdly online and offline. Basically, I became an easy target for the people who picked on me.

I also had messy, curly hair, which I probably inherited from my dad’s side. This resulted in plenty of name-calling.

Some of the names that I was called include and are probably not limited to the following:

  • Jinx
  • Broccoli
  • Dandruff girl
  • Virus
  • “Canned food” (a Mandarin pun on my name)
  • Qiu Moh (Literally curly hair in Hokkien)

Finding footprints in my worksheets, books, bags, along with things going missing was an everyday occurrence.

Plenty of things were thrown into my hair, too. There was a classmate who brought erasers and worked with other classmates to cut and dice them, fashioning them into tiny ammo which they could fling into my hair. During a lab session in science class, half a cup of salt was poured onto my head.

I was occasionally kicked while heading up to class from the assembly area. Sometimes, the impact from those kicks left small bruises on my back because of my school bag hitting against my skin.

My blog’s Cbox was filled with nasty comments about me as well.

Not responding, shouting back: Tactics that didn't work

S: The way I coped with the bullying was to just not give my classmate Natasha the satisfaction of seeing that I was sad.

On the outside, I appeared strong and didn’t want to show that I was sad.

During one or two incidents, I did express my discontent with the students who were being disruptive in class. I also remember confronting the bully and her friend in class, especially during an incident when they were being mean to a teacher.

Both staying silent and speaking up didn't make them stop, though. I was still bullied throughout the year.

Overall, looking forward to being an adult was my way of coping with not being able to fit in with my peers during my teenage years. I was hopeful that it would get better as I grew older.

I would also often fantasise about being in another secondary school, or being an adult so I didn’t have to deal with childish peers.

GZ: There was once I shouted at my bullies in class saying that I had enough when they were laughing or snickering at me.

That ended up becoming a joke because that was said in Mandarin; an ongoing slimming product advertisement on Channel 8 at that point in time (if I recall correctly) made a pun on the phrase “I had enough” and “I had slimmed down enough”.

My response had just become another reason for them to laugh at me.

I can’t recall all the acts that were done since it’s been such a long time since they happened, but it was certainly something I don’t wish to have a go through ever again.

But it didn't work? And the bullying still carried on?

GZ: Name-calling and other such acts continued into Secondary One and Two, despite none of my primary school bullies or classmates having followed me to the new school.

The textbook way of dealing with bullies — staying calm, being assertive, telling them to stop in a firm tone — was essentially useless to me. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t the most articulate in expressing my feelings, or the most confident.

Even when I found the courage to express myself firmly, it backfired.

I think ultimately it was because so long as they could find any reason, however insignificant or childish, they would continue to pick on me.

And unlike things like physical bullying, verbal bullying was harder to prove or provide evidence of. These could be easily done out of sight and earshot of teachers.

These bullies also had friends who egged them on, motivating each other to keep disturbing, insulting and picking on me.

Did parents or teachers ever come to know about this? Did anyone intervene?

S: Being an only child, I never wanted to make my parents worry, so I kept these incidents of bullying to myself. I didn’t tell teachers as I didn’t trust that they would take such cases seriously.

Plus, one of our form teachers was quite friendly with the group of ‘cool’ kids in the class, which included the bully in Secondary One.

This made me not want to confide in the teacher, as I was worried that she would not believe me, or might just end up defending the 'cool' kids in class.

I’m also naturally very avoidant of conflict and just was hoping that things would just blow over. So I left it to fate and hoped that things would get better.

GZ: Plenty was done by my teachers but none of the actions really had lasting effects in stopping my bullies from continuing their actions, or how they viewed me.

In primary school, my mum (who was a teacher in the school) had tried to step in quite actively.

But by the time I was in secondary school, I refrained from informing my parents or getting them involved. Perhaps I thought that pursuing disciplinary action would only cause my bullies to hate me more and give me more trouble than I was already facing.

Thankfully, I still had a bunch of friends in my class who got me through this tough time.

Perhaps that was enough that I had friends.

How was it eventually resolved?

S: The bullying in Secondary One was resolved when I transferred out to another girls’ school.

The reason for the transfer was actually due to the fact that my father wanted me to be in another school with better academic performance.

But it worked out because it meant the bullying stopped.

GZ: It was all eventually resolved at the start of Secondary Three. Firstly, the class was broken up, and my bullies were streamed to other classes.

I straightened my hair during the December holidays, and returned to school with straight hair, so there was no more “broccoli” or “dandruff girl” anyone could pick on.

Along with tuition and a renewed focus on my studies, my grades improved tremendously. I also started to enjoy my CCA. It was one of the best years of my life.

Was there any lasting effects on you as a person, even as an adult?

S: My looks was something I struggled with for a long time. I eventually changed the way I wore my hair, and just ended up threading my eyebrows, so that they didn’t look bushy.

I would say that I've come to terms with my experiences in secondary school and am very grateful to be an adult now, as my teenage phase was a struggle.

While the experience has strengthened me in some ways, it definitely has left some emotional scars, which I have learnt to work on.

GZ: The socially awkward and inappropriate part of me probably never was 'fixed', and continue to be something I struggle up until today.

Something which I only very recently uncovered through therapy was that my bad experiences being bullied also translated to how I view the world.

As with a lot of bullied kids, my self-esteem was strongly affected, and I found it hard to think that people would think of me in a positive light without thinking that I was flawed or terrible in some way or another.

I often find myself questioning why people don't share the same kind of empathy for others, nor see all sides of the picture in a conflict between several parties.

I would then realise my experience had shaped me to see the world in this way, and I have to understand that people are independent of my experiences and view of the world. Hence, this experience made me see that people may not be as thoughtful or empathetic as I had hoped.

What do you think people around students, like adults or other students, can do to prevent, or reduce such incidences?

S: I think teachers should not appear to have favourites, as this would make bullied students think that the adult cannot be confided in or trusted.

In my experience, schools also didn’t have a lot of educational resources or awareness about bullying, so it would be good for schools to have students cultivate that empathy for others, especially those who are being bullied.

Education can also help students examine the underlying insecurities and reasons as to why they feel the need to bully others, and how it is not okay to manage their emotions in such a way.

GZ: I think teachers and parents have tried to tackle this issue over the years. But raising awareness through roadshows and talks can only go so far.

The thing is, I think bullies are perfectly aware of the effects of their behaviour.

The motivation for their actions is not whether it’s right or wrong, but rather, their actions are fuelled by an environment that propagates and encourages such behaviour, i.e. their friends and social circles.

It is not enough to have disciplinary action. It also needs to be combined with an environment that does not encourage bullying as socially acceptable behaviour.

There is no easy single solution to the matter, but some of my suggestions include: having an active buddy system in school, finding ways to reward good behaviour, or breaking up the bullies and relocating the victim or bullies to different classes.

Overall, life has been better since it ended, and I hold no grudge towards those who have bullied me.

After all, the future is what’s worth living for.

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Top photo via Ilayza Macayan and MChe Lee/Unsplash