Let's speak up against bullies

The book A Certain Exposure has struck a nerve with some readers, who wrote in with their own stories as victims or witnesses. -- FILE PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS
The book A Certain Exposure has struck a nerve with some readers, who wrote in with their own stories as victims or witnesses. -- FILE PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

Last week, I reviewed a novel about bullying by Singapore writer Jolene Tan. The book A Certain Exposure has struck a nerve with some readers, who wrote in with their own stories as victims or witnesses.

As someone who has been bullied and has witnessed bullying in schools and workplaces, I found myself also revisiting old memories and becoming increasingly angry.

I was angry not only at the bullies of the past but at myself, for being cowed, for not speaking up for myself or the others I saw harassed.

Why do we watch and not step in to stop bullies?

As a teen, I refused at first to join in orientation rituals in junior college and university that seemed unsanitary or over-sexualised.

How does throwing buckets of gooey starch paste generate team spirit in a new batch of undergraduates? Did I really have to walk blindfolded past rows of whistling seniors in a wet T-shirt to guarantee my place in the social hierarchy? Thanks, but no thanks.

But such an attitude is not "sporting". It sets you apart, makes you fair game for ostentatious gestures of ostracism. No one will sit with you at dinner or pick you for team sports. Your roommate will ignore you and giggle in corners with the older girls enforcing the social ban. Your underwear will be stolen and scattered among the bushes.

Your grades will drop - I received my first and only C grade in biology for my A levels for these reasons, hard to explain to the scholarship authorities at the Ministry of Education, who were paying my tuition and hostel fees.

I was lucky. I knew how to write and edit and in my first year living in a hall at the National University of Singapore, a computer crash delayed the hall yearbook's production, even as the seniors working on it graduated.

As the new editor of the monthly hall magazine and yearbook, I was no longer at the bottom of the pack. I watched from my safe rung as another girl took that spot. She, too, was not "sporting", and was unwilling to dedicate 12 hours a day to decorate the parade float for the annual rag-and-flag day, at the expense of spending time with family or on studies.

I knew her story. None of those who sneered at her or spread tales about her lack of hall spirit cared that she was paying her own way through university by giving tuition and also helping to care for an ailing grandmother.

And while I never laughed with those who laughed at her, neither did I tell them to shut up, that she had more integrity and fighting spirit than they did.

Bullying does not stop after one graduates - it merely changes form. Take the case of the intern who was slapped by his boss at an IT company - the employer was charged in court last month.

What of socially sanctioned methods of imposing a greater will on a weaker? At one publishing outfit I worked in, employees were often press-ganged into shouldering heavier workloads than earlier agreed on - "for the sake of the team", since the headcount had not been filled for the year.

We worked without extra financial compensation or adequate time off afterwards. A gathering of former employees of this firm compared scars and we learnt that one was hospitalised with heart problems over the stress, while I fainted once because of lack of sleep. Our medical bills were only partly covered by the company.

Yet at this gathering, the underlying tone was to praise one another for bearing up under the stress and to revile those who sensibly quit, leaving the team in the lurch.

A friend of my mother's told me a story about her mother-in-law. Her in-law was told by her mother-in-law in turn: "My mother-in-law made my life hell, now it is my job to do the same to you."

My mother's friend concluded by saying how thankful she was that her mother- in-law did not do the same, but treated her as a cherished daughter.

Those who are abused often become inured to it, unable to see that a situation is wrong and should not be allowed to continue. But if we do and we do not speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, we are almost as guilty as those bullying them.

I know I will never forgive myself for staying quiet all those years ago, especially since the girl I ignored forgave me and is today one of my close friends.