As bullying incidents go, the one that made headlines in Singapore this week wasn’t unusual.
After all, most of us are already predisposed to believe that bullies will always exist, just like bad hair days. And we all know there are more incidents like this not reported or made public.
Still, the swift justice that was meted out in this case to the teenage school bully (he was quickly expelled for hitting and bullying another with autism), was what caught my eye. It made me pause for a bit before penning the letter below.
Though this letter ended with a message which I hope will resonate with many across the population, there was really more I wanted to say.
But first, let me share the letter here with you in its original form (an edited version was first published here).
My Letter to the School
I am a parent of a ten year old boy with autism who attends Pathlight School for autistic children. So reading this recent news sent chills down my spine.
With such unfortunate incidents, my heart goes out to victims, their family and other special needs persons in educational institutions. I know there’s always a possibility that my son might be the next victim when he transits out of Pathlight into a diverse world. One that includes neuro-typicals who might still have little understanding, patience and grace for people like my son and his unique ways.
But as much as I empathise with the victim and am grateful a swift and decisive move was made to oppose such abhorrent behaviour, could this not instead have been a teachable opportunity for the bully and his friends and family? After all, expulsion is an irreversible mark on a young person’s record in life, and can leave scars that are irreparable.
I’m not suggesting nothing be done, for clearly there’s damage here that needs restoration. Yet I can’t help but wonder: must the ‘punishment’ always be punitive? As a parent and also an educator, I understand the importance of sending clear signals to future potential perpetrators and bullies. But isn’t there another approach we can take? One where all parties are brought together to figure out the best way forward to mitigate this incident and what it truly means about society’s treatment of the disadvantaged?
While I cannot speak on behalf of the special needs community, I believe that this outcome of expulsion is not what the community would desire either. For the long-term hope is to build an inclusive society where we respect and even celebrate differences; where we seek first to understand before being understood. That’s the far more noble, inclusive and sustainable goal to strive for.
But how can we reach such a goal when we choose each time to “bandage the wound” quickly and move on, case closed? What are we really “signalling” to society-at-large when we forgo golden opportunities like this to teach ourselves and our future generations a better, more inclusive way?
I know this decision to expel the bully was not easy, but I hope there’s still time to redress this — for the victim, the bully, and the greater good of our society.
Hang on…I’ve more to say!
I ended the letter with an appeal to the school to redress this incident for the “greater good”.
But what I wanted to say further (had the editor permitted me more word count!) was this incident, and the way it was handled, is symptomatic of a far more disturbing malaise in my country’s culture and legacy.
But this has come at a heavy cost.
Because we want, and relentlessly pursue, the “good” life and every opulent creature comfort. As a people, we are unwilling to climb down the corporate ladder; be weighed down with extra mouths to feed; unwilling to do menial work which we much prefer to outsource to “foreign talent”.
All the while unaware that in choosing this lifestyle, we’ve also sold our soul to the devil!
If I sound harsh, then it’s intentional if it provokes a visceral reaction.
For the simple reason why incidents like this bullying happen regularly on a teenage level, and incidents of corporate deceit and greed happen all the time on an adult level, is that we’re losing our humanity.
No surprise really.
We’re a tiny country of just five million, yet we turned this backwater island-state in the ’50s and ’60s, with no natural resources whatsoever, into the economic powerhouse it is today! To achieve such a feat required a pace that was nothing short of supersonic!
That means hurry and efficiency.
Productivity and technology.
Meritocracy and bullying!
None of these offers the time and space for
– pause and consideration
– contemplation and reflection
– grace and second chances.
In short, the hard stuff of life.
Which includes among other things, understanding and engaging with people different from us; and care-giving the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and the forgotten among us.
The Hard Truth
I’ve struggled for the longest time to put into words these ruminations of mine. And I still doubt I’ve articulated them clearly here. To connect the dots the way I did and make every member in my society complicit in so big a conspiracy to rob us of our humanity?
I run the risk of being strung up a tree, if not for the strict laws here on killing!
Bully me into silence if you will, but the fact is that I care for my people. I care for this society I’ve grown up in. I don’t often agree with things that happen here, but I’m 100% for its welfare and continued longevity.
But incidents like this bullying case make me realise the hard truth: we’ve still far to go to be a gracious society.
Yet the stakes couldn’t be any higher now, as one generation of leaders make way for the “new guard’s” ascent. Can we really afford to ignore these harbingers of doom I’ve been talking about, if we continue on this relentless pursuit of material supremacy at the expense of the lesser-abled in our nation?
My one prayer is that on my death bed I may yet see the goal of us as a gracious society come to pass.
Then I can tell my son that his daddy played a tiny part in my little assigned corner of our world; one that helped raise awareness and bring forth this country’s enlightened transformation from bullying the downtrodden to supporting more graciousness and inclusion.