We have all been victims of bullying at one time or another and we have all been bullies at one time or another. It’s just that most times we are not aware of this.
Even today, some of us don’t realise that we are bullies while most of us don’t realise that we are victims. This is largely due to our cultural upbringing and our perspective of the norm in relationships – whether personal, societal or even political.
And it is precisely because bullying is so well camouflaged in our society, so well coloured by our cultural values that we will never see an end to bullying in our schools, in the workplace and elsewhere.
Perhaps some of the harsher forms of bullying will be identified and addressed but the subtler forms of bullying, which are harder to identify, will remain.
To better understand what I’m saying, we need to look at the meaning of bullying. The Oxford dictionary defines bullying as “the use of strength or power to frighten or hurt weaker people”.
We know that a bully beats, harasses, intimidates, defames, threatens, creates fear or generally makes another person feel humiliated and distressed. Bullying involves actions which harm the target person physically, emotionally or mentally and which are often carried out repeatedly over time.
What most of us may not realise is that bullying is predicated on a power imbalance.
In the home, for instance, one spouse may expect the other to do everything he or she says or there’ll be trouble. One spouse may scream and shout if something does not go his or her way. One spouse may totally ignore the other or have a tendency to make fun of that person in front of visitors, making that person feel insignificant and hopeless.
In Malaysian society, by and large, men are accepted as the head of the family and therefore his word is more or less law. He may feel he has a right to beat or reprimand his wife and his wife may feel that he is, after all, the boss in the family. In some families, the women may bully the husband until he complies or nags so much that rather than get into a fight with her, he quietly acquiesces.
Most spouses tolerate or accept such bullying, largely to keep the family unit together, especially if they have children. The bullying spouses often don’t realise they are bullying their partner and vice versa.
At the workplace, spreading rumours about a colleague to embarrass him or her, excluding someone from the “gang”, threatening an office mate into doing what one wants, overloading someone the boss doesn’t like with work, are forms of bullying. Racist speech is a form of bullying, as are inappropriate gender-based comments.
However, most of us tolerate the bullying – except when it turns physical or overtly sexual – for we assume it to be part of the workplace organisational culture.
Politics is an arena where bullying has been turned into an art.
If someone wants to move up the party hierarchy, that person may have to initially allow himself or herself to be bullied and to run errands for the politician who’s higher up. If a businessman needs some assistance for, say, some project or other, he may have to swear loyalty to the politician concerned or become a party member or give 10% of the profits to his or her party or support him or her with cash and kind in the next election.
We have often come across situations where constituencies that voted for opposition candidates were deprived of government funds or the elected representative would be deprived of development funds allocated to elected representatives coming from parties that form the government.
In fact, some senior politicians clearly tell the electorate that if they want development and government funds for improvements in their areas, they should vote for a government party candidate.
Isn’t this a form of bullying?
Power imbalance in a country can result in various shades of bullying – often even backed by official policies or the law. Certain policies of the government, for instance, could make some citizens, especially minorities, feel that a double-standard is being applied or that they are being treated as second-class citizens.
Let me give an example: Say there are groups that want to discuss freedom of religion in Malaysia but whenever they plan to do so, one group of Malaysians protests against it by taking to the streets or protesting in front of the venue. The police then stop the meeting.
Isn’t the action of the protesters – who are loud, and in the majority – an act of bullying? Aren’t the police giving in to bullies by stopping the meeting?
Here’s another example: Someone or some group keeps calling a decent tax-paying citizen “pendatang” (alien) every now and then to further their political ambition or because they feel they should be the “boss”. Won’t that citizen feel depressed, hurt, intimidated, or fear for his or her future and that of the children?
Isn’t that bullying?
Whenever some politician raises the spectre of May 13 in warning the minorities to “behave”, don’t the minorities feel fear, anxiety and distress? Isn’t that bullying?
We can see this power imbalance play out as bullying very clearly in the international sphere. Just consider how many times the US has made some countries toe the line that it draws. Just consider how vessels belonging to China continue intruding into Malaysian waters despite Putrajaya’s diplomatic protests.
What options do smaller nations like Malaysia have?
Similarly, what can minorities do? Since power is tilted in favour of the majority group in all societies – whether in Malaysia or the US – minorities feel pressured to comply and so they largely adjust and adapt to the situation.
This is also the case of the minority groups within the majority group or community which may have different views on certain issues or which may want to go in a different direction. They too learn to conform or tolerate the bullying of those wielding the power and resources, especially government resources, within their group or community.
The fact is, Malaysians largely tolerate or accept these subtle forms of bullying – whether in the home, workplace or the country – because they see it as some sort of social or organisational control that is needed for society to function smoothly or as something beyond their powers to rectify without inviting dire consequences upon themselves.
Importantly too, those who are bullied usually don’t speak up out of fear they may get into more trouble or shame or be made fun of or whatever. Speaking up at home, may result in more bullying or strife. Speaking up for your rights or speaking your mind as a citizen may invite policemen into your home or open you up for government intimidation or even criminal charges.
Some of us, especially those exhibiting a feudal mentality, may feel that accusing a higher up of bullying may be disrespectful of that person’s position or status and so we prefer not to disrupt the status quo.
Victims of bullying – at home, in the school, at the workplace or in the country – have a choice of either accepting these subtle acts of bullying, fighting it and facing the consequences or leaving.
A spouse, for instance, can decide to divorce his or her partner if the situation becomes too unbearable while a student who is a victim of intense bullying can ask for a transfer to another school.
Someone who is bullied in the workplace has a choice of quitting the job or asking for a transfer. Sometimes, someone who feels he or she is under unbearable pressure may commit suicide and quit the world, as a houseman in Penang is suspected of having done last month.
Those who feel the government or the nation is not treating them as equal citizens or is infringing on their rights to freedom of speech or freedom or religion or that it is using public institutions to bully them into submission, have the option of resettling elsewhere – provided they have the means.
The majority, however, stay and adapt to the situation, or become bitter and sulk, or try to improve it against great odds.
What I’m getting at is that there is institutionalised bullying in our governance system and in our society. And so long as there is power imbalance – at home, at the workplace, in the country, in the world – there will be bullying.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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