Dealing with Harassment

The new anti-harassment law seeks to protect individuals against a broad range of bullying behaviours at school and work. Whilst there has been much discussion about the need to address these issues, we do not wish for the issue itself to be sidelined by the spotlight on the new law.

School Bullying

With the dramatic increase of computer use in and for schools in recent years and a near 100% Internet connectivity in Singapore, bullying has taken on a new form. A 2012 Microsoft study across 25 countries has highlighted the prevalence of online bullying in Singapore. Behind China, Singapore is regarded as having the second highest rate of online bullying amongst youth aged 8 to 17. Bullies easily hide behind computer screens or smart phones, emboldened by anonymity, vicious in their invasive attacks via perpetual access to their victims.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, national guidelines to what constitutes cyber bullying have been outlined and since put into legislation. However, definitions of cyber bullying are still unclear in Singapore. In a 2011 Singapore Polytechnic survey on Internet privacy and bullying, it was found that many had varying perceptions of what constitutes cyber bullying. It provides an indication that many people in Singapore do not have a clear understanding of what cyber bullying actually is.

Media reports often link school bullying with suicide. Research indicates that most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviours. However, bullying can increase risk for youth whom are depressed, have problems at home and have traumatic histories. This risk can be increased further when these youth do not feel supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.

In a recent study from Boston Children’s Hospital, it was found that bullying was associated with worse mental and physical health, greater depression symptoms, and lower self-worth. This longitudinal study followed youth from ages 11 through 17 and found that such symptoms worsened over time. Numerous other studies have also highlighted the decreased academic achievement that bullying is associated with. Youth are more likely to miss, skip or drop out of school. Perhaps most interesting is that similar symptoms are found for both victims and perpetrators of bullying.

In the 2011 Singapore Polytechnic survey, many individuals stated that they have ignored the incident when faced with cyber bullying. This attests further to the lack of public awareness and inadequate management of bullying at an individual and societal level. Many studies have also highlighted that youth would generally shy away from reporting bullying. Bullying can make one feel helpless, weak and isolated. Many youth feel that they ought to handle the situation on their own to feel in control again. Furthermore, they may fear backlash from the bully. Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Youth may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak.

Workplace Bullying

Last year, NTUC conducted a general Happiness Poll surveying over 5000 of their union members. Good relationships with colleagues and supervisors were the main reasons cited by individuals whom rated themselves as happy and motivated at their workplace and likely to stay on in their jobs. From the poll results, it was found that positive relationships at work played a key role in one's job and workplace satisfaction. Workplace bullying would clearly have a detrimental effect on one’s job satisfaction. At present, there is no fixed definition of workplace bullying in Singapore. Workplace bullying may be seen as one’s progressive series of malicious actions that jeopardises another’s job and health.

The psychological effects of workplace bullying include recurrent anxiety, perhaps even post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, depression, and feelings of guilt and shame for having “allowed” oneself to be bullied. Physically, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems such as hypertension and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may appear.

Bullying is under-reported at work. Fears from those facing workplace bullying are that their grievances would be branded as mere “interpersonal conflicts” or “personality differences”. There are also fears of reprisals or retaliation. Studies have found that many workplace bullies receive positive evaluations from their managers and achieve high levels of career success. Considering this, the threat of being ostracised here is real.

The need to Intervene

With the new anti-harassment law, we appear determined to identify and punish the perpetrators. The reality is that bullying is exceptionally hard to investigate and many incidents reported as bullying will not be determined as such. This is worsened by loose definitions that surround bullying. This is further exacerbated by our hypersensitivity to the word "bullying", where we flit from extremes of categorising every other action as bullying, or simply not mentioning this taboo subject. We need definitions and investigations to separate "normal" behavior from the truly malicious. Not calling bullying "bullying", in order to avoid offending others is a disservice to individuals whose school life, jobs, careers, and health have been threatened as a result. Prominent American writer, Tom Engelhardt has stated that, "Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped… all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated." Initiating this anti-harassment law is a step in the right direction towards the open conversation of bullying.

Importantly, we must not forget that this alone will not mitigate the harm done to those whom have been bullied. This conversation of bullying must incorporate services for those who have been bullied to help empower individuals to move beyond what has happened without judging or dismissing their experience.

Written by Dr. Joel Yang