SINGAPORE: Her voice was unwavering and confident, but the dim orange glow of the street lamps did nothing to mask the nervous twitch of her fingers.
“To be called a devil, and for no reason…” she trailed off, suddenly unable to find the right words to express an enduring hurt.
This was understandable. After all, Isabel (who declined to reveal her full name) had just spent the last hour reliving a very unpleasant childhood experience.
“When I was in secondary school, I was called Satan by a group of boys. I asked my friends what Satan meant and they told me, it meant devil. I was confused and didn’t understand at all why this was happening to me.”
Isabel's ordeal went on for four years, and what started as name-calling soon evolved into loud jeers when she received awards or did presentations on the school stage.
A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015 listed Singapore as having the third-highest rate of bullying in the world. A total of 14.5 per cent of students reported being bullied frequently, higher than the global average of 8.9 per cent.
“Once a bully made a joke about my body being short and flat-chested, and I was quite upset. I went up to the teacher in class but she just laughed and said – ‘Boys are like that. It’s okay they are just joking.'
“I shouldn’t have to go through this. That’s not fair at all. I feel that as a teacher, she should have done more and not laughed it off,” Isabel whispered, blinking back tears.
But things are set to change.
In a written reply in Parliament on Monday (Nov 6), Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said that his ministry works closely with community partners such as Singapore Children’s Society (SCS) to conduct bullying awareness programmes.
MOE said it also trains teachers and school counsellors in classroom management strategies to defuse hurtful behaviour.
Schools such as Rosyth and North Vista Primary have platforms such as a Buddy Bench and a Sharing Box respectively, for victims of bullying to share their concerns anonymously.
The SCS has reached out to nearly 150,000 children in the last five years through school talks, workshops and phone consultations. This figure is not reflective of an increasing trend of bullying in Singapore, but of broader outreach due to more available helplines.
Mr Ng had requested that data of hotline callers be made available so as to enable the ministry to improve intervention efforts.
Channel NewsAsia understand that the SCS currently tracks concerns raised by the callers; these include matters relating to homework stress, family problems as well as school bullying.
However personal particulars on the callers are kept anonymous.
Experts Channel NewsAsia spoke with said school talks help zone in on issues such as social isolation, or name calling – an important step in helping students identify that they are being bullied.
“So with the programmes that various organisations have been doing, it allows the child to identify that this is the incident he is going through. Now the next step is to find a trusted adult, find someone to talk to, so that he can seek advice or help,” said SCS counsellor Maathavan K.
If competitive bodybuilder Danie Dharma had known about this when he was 13 years old, his secondary school experience would have been vastly different.
“I was a skinny kid while growing up, and the bigger guys would slam my head against the wall or pull my pants down in class.
“At some point you start to question the situation. Why are these things happening to me? But at that time you wouldn't know if this was bullying. It's very grey area for a young guy,” Mr Danie said, adding that even his bullies might not have understood how harmful their actions were.
This is where parents can step in, Mr Maathavan said, explaining that showing support can simply be in the form of listening with empathy and compassion.
“Parents can teach the child to develop empathy, personality and self-esteem (at home). Children at that age learn through observation. With crisis matters at home, parents usually settle it while children observe. How parents manage it at home is how the child will manage it outside,” he added.
But parents and community partners can only do so much.
As the child is surrounded by peers most of the time, Mr Maathavan said that active bystanders also play a crucial role.
“These children can actually step up to stop the act once they identify a bullying episode. The child may not be your friend, but if you view such an incident happening, you must do something to stop it.”
But this is not an ideal world. And when fleeting jibes and name calling snowball into shocking cases such as physical abuse, the trauma can be long-lasting.
Absenteeism and isolation are some of the short-term impact that victims of bullying go through. When problems are not nipped in the bud, the consequences may be dire.
“If you look at the long-term impact, it can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Some even turn to gangs and substance abuse to find a coping mechanism, just so they can feel empowered albeit in the wrong way,” Mr Maathavan said.
Five years after her nightmare, Isabel still struggles to find her place in social settings.
“I can’t quite trust people anymore. I don’t know if the bullying will start all over again. Even in university, I try to be a lot more active. I try to be the first one to go around and start making friends.
“I’m afraid that if I’m not the first one to go out and seem like a very friendly person, then I might be on the losing end. I don’t want to sink back into the past,” she said.
Her experience is not too far off from Danie’s, who despite his muscled physique, still suffers from bouts of anxiety.
“At some point I was facing anxiety, I didn't know what it was or why I was going through that. Maybe it’s because I was always bullied in a crowded environment, so sometimes when I take the train I feel like people are watching me, like they saw something bad had happened to me before,” he said.
Yet the two-time winner of FM League National Bodybuilding Championships would not trade his pain for anything.
“If I hadn't gone through that much negativity then I wouldn't have gotten the motivation to channel that negativity into bodybuilding and move forward. I think I'm a much better person due to the bad experiences that I have faced,” Danie mused as he flipped through photographs of his secondary school days.