HAKAM Report: Bullying in Malaysian Schools, 30 Jan 2018


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 - 30 JANUARY 2018 -


Bullying in our schools has reached alarming proportions. The problem needs to be addressed urgently. Its consequences are serious - especially on young children and adolescents. It can scar a life and lead sometimes to even worst end-results – such as depression, mental health problems and even suicides. It is a grave human rights issue.

With this in mind, HAKAM undertook a study of the problem. It dealt with the following issues:

  • The prevalence of bullying in Malaysian schools;
  • The forms of bullying;
  • The responses to bullying by various stakeholders; and
  • The possible best means of tackling this problem.

With the help of interns[1] under HAKAM’s internship programme, we scoured articles and materials – both national and international. We also interviewed experts and others involved directly and indirectly in education and related fields. We wish to place on record our gratitude to the following for their expert guidance in this regard:

  • Dr Goh Chee Leong, a leading psychologist on bullying, currently attached to HELP University;
  • Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, Chairperson of Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE);
  • Tunku Munawirah Putra, Honorary Secretary of Parent Action Group for Education;
  • Dato Frieda Pilus, founder of Cempaka Schools; and
  • Rachel King, from Bye Bye Bully[2]

A caveat to the study. We were severely constrained by our limited financial and human resources. This study was confined to a segment of the schools in the Klang Valley. We also could not gain access to public schools because of the time required to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of getting permission in time. We hope, however, to add to the growing studies and chorus of concerns to highlight the prevalence of bullying in schools; and contribute to the search for solutions to staunch this ugly phenomenon. The outcome is this report which we now present.



  1. Prevalence of bullying in Malaysian schools

Incidences of bullying in Malaysia have remained consistently high over recent years. The reporting and recording of the number of cases have become easier with the wide use among school children of smart phones. It facilitates recording and documenting bullying incidences. The alarming number of reported cases is cause for concern.

Statistics from the Education Ministry revealed that there were more than 14,000 cases of bullying in schools between 2012 and 2015, with most of them involving physical bullying. There has been an appreciable increase of cases in secondary schools: from 0.06 per cent of cases in 2015 to 0.11 per cent cases last year.

In 2015, 2,968 cases were reported compared with 2,825 cases in 2014 and 4,120 in 2013. According to the Education Ministry there was a steep rise in the number of cases – from 2,825 in 2014 to 3,448 in 2016.

The nature of the bullying paints a dark picture. Cases are becoming more brutal.

Social media has added a new dimension to the problem – facilitating online youths to get involved in deleterious behaviour, including physical bullying and cyberbullying.[3]

It was noted that there may exist a higher prevalence of bullying in residential schools, with the opportunity for bullying increasing significantly for students who experience 24-hours contact with one another compounded by a lack of constant adult supervision.[4]


  1. Forms of bullying and their causes

Although it is the most drastic cases of physical bullying which are reported in the media and gain the greatest amount of public attention, Dr Goh Chee Leong discussed that it is by no means the most prevalent form. Instead verbal bullying is what is most common in Malaysian schools. It is verbal and social bullying, taking the form of name-calling, gossiping, stealing money, isolation and exclusion. “Bye Bye Bully” also confirmed that this is the case in their school in Pahang. The type of behaviour that prompted the creation of this student-led campaign was the presentation of bullying in the verbal form of name-calling as well as its manifestation in the vandalism of school and student property.

As noted earlier. advanced technology has also spawned a new form of online ‘cyber-bullying’ phenomenon. And it is growing. Based on CyberSecurity Malaysia’s statistics,[5] cyberbullying among students occurs almost every day, with 338 cases reported last year compared with 291 cases in 2014. The number was equally high in 2012 and 2013, with 250 cases and 389 cases respectively.

Approximately 84 per cent of children in Malaysia suffer from some form of bullying, with 33 per cent having been bullied online.

An online forum aimed at stopping bullying, nobullying.com, another 45 per cent of kids say they’ve bullied others offline and 15 per cent admit that they have committed cyberbullying acts.

It was also discussed that the severity of bullying may vary dependent on age as well as socio economic indicators.[6] The older students are, the more serious and sophisticated the bullying may become with a more targeted nature.

With regard to the causes of bullying, Bye Bye Bully provided the reasons they identified as part of their campaign. First, that bullies want power and popularity; secondly, to hurt people. Dr Goh suggested the same; the reason that bullying occurs is often for individuals to secure popularity and respect through the assertion of power over another. Both Dr Goh and PAGE believe that race was not an underlying reason in the majority of cases. Admittedly inter-racial bullying occurs, but it does not stand out in a significant way from the large amount of bullying between those of the same race.


C. Consequences

The lasting effects of bullying have grave effects on victims. The most obvious symptoms being lowered self-esteem, deep depression, leading in some cases to suicidal thoughts. Social bullying also has the capacity to isolate children and leave them feeling completely alienated, creating the potential for long-term effects that extends into adulthood. An adult bullied in his or her younger days develops a lack of trust and confidence in building new relationships and contacts. The effects and symptoms differ in individuals. Says Dr Goh, consequently each case requires close attention to detect any display of indicators.

“To make things worse, more youngsters are now suffering from mental health problems,” he says, referring to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey. It revealed that about 4.2 million Malaysians aged 16 and above suffered from mental problems. The number is alarming because it shows an increase of 11.2 percent compared with 2006.

Dr Goh warns that with mental health problems predicted to be the second largest health problem in the country after heart disease by 2020, parents and teachers must ensure that children are getting the help they need.




  1. Role of parents

Both Dato Frieda and PAGE believe that parents and the home environment play the most important and primary role in addressing the issue of bullying. Children model their behaviour from that of their parents and the ways they are raised. Abuse or physical means of discipline at home may then transfer to a child’s behaviour at school and the way they treat others.

Dato Frieda notes how critical it is for parents, as the first teachers in a child’s life, to instil in children a sense of humility and empathy, rather than a forceful arrogance or selfishness. For parents’ actions and behaviour embeds deeply in a child’s nature. Hence the home environment is one of the main factors that can be responsible for bullying in schools. At Cempaka Schools, Dato Frieda encourages parents to engage with the school and become part of the school community so that they too have a support network and can see how their children are progressing in the school environment.


  1. Role of schools

Although Dato Frieda believes that parents are the primary actors in addressing bullying, next significant factor is the role of teachers and schools. Frieda says that at Cempaka Schools teachers have a larger role in students’ lives than simply teaching the syllabus. They adopt a role more similar to ‘school parents’. They teach students about manners, life skills, team work and coping mechanisms; the school acts as a ‘training ground for life and of life’. With the holistic approach adopted by Cempaka Schools and the large amount of extra-curricular activities students take part in, such as community and voluntary work, Dato Frieda demonstrates the importance in her students understanding the position of others and being empathetic. Empathy, she adds, helps students to relate to the experience of other students, such as those who have been bullied. And it thus reduces the likelihood of them continuing to bully another.


  1. Role of the State

All the experts were unanimous that the state only had a limited role to play in tackling bullying in schools. According to them, schools have the necessary resources if they have the will to bring about change. Dr Goh was wary about the state creating mandatory regulations for schools to address bullying as this could result in government overreach. If a school lacks the motivation and spirit to actually address bullying head-on then often a state mandate will have minimal positive effect. Schools may then comply with the letter of the law at a superficial level. It is important to bear in mind that culture cannot be legislated. It is paramount for schools to foster a cultural change to demonstrate that bullying is not acceptable; superficial campaigns and programs are unlikely to make a dent on this social phenomenon.

Both PAGE and Dato Frieda said that the state has provided a platform for schools and teachers to achieve their goals, but they are not necessarily the primary stakeholder. Bye Bye Bully concurred saying that the state may be able to help schools realise their goals through the provision of funding for the schools to conduct anti-bullying programs.




  1. School procedures

Dato Frieda explained that from a young age at Cempaka Schools, students are educated on what is and is not acceptable behaviour for treating others, and as well the importance of empathy. Younger students are educated on what is appropriate behaviour. Students are familiarised with their Code of Conduct which outlines the consequences for various acts; including expulsion for participation in any bullying behaviour. This applies to older students who should be already aware of the gravity of such behaviour. Overall though, Cempaka prides itself on developing empathy and showing students what it would feel like to be on the receiving end, rather than invoke purely punitive measures. Notably though, across their four campuses, no students have been expelled for any bullying-related behaviour.

PAGE highlighted that the majority of schools lack any set structure on how to respond to bullying. Instead they rely on ad hoc reactive procedures. These are not actively promoted. Established policy guidelines were not necessarily followed. Consequently, students do not know what to expect as a response to bullying; this also does not necessarily encourage them to report incidences of bullying either. PAGE spoke of the damaging effect on students’ welfare when schools prioritise their reputation and grades and fail to take bullying seriously to deal properly with reported incidences. It narrated an incidence of reporting the bullying of a student of a residential school; the school refused to take any action against the bully on the basis that he/she was a final year student whose future should not be jeopardised. The victim had to endure the bullying disappointed that the school had put his/her safety as a matter of secondary concern.

Dr Goh discussed that in schools where the culture does not provide significant attention to bullying or it is not taken very seriously, then reporting rates will begin to drop as students are discouraged by the lack of will by the school to address the problem adequately or at all. This happens even where the school has reporting procedures in place.

Bye Bye Bully spoke about how prior to the introduction of their campaign (see para 6.3 below) earlier in 2017, there were no systems or structures set up to address bullying. Where they were, students were either not aware or lacked confidence that any useful outcome would result.


  1. Police involvement

Police involvement in school bullying cases is a measure that has been implemented more recently following gangsterism and violent instances of physical bullying. According to Dr Goh, police involvement should be restricted to cases which involve criminal activity as beyond that police are not trained to deal with cases of bullying involving children. PAGE provided insight into the relationship some police stations and officers have built with various schools. Explaining that there are benefits in neighbourhood police regularly visiting schools and building a positive relationship with students, and creating awareness amongst bullies of the repercussions if they do become involved in criminal activity. PAGE highlighted that the relationship does not need to be punitive but should be educational with the provision of guidance.


  1. Bye Bye Bully Campaign

Rachel King of the Bye Bye Bully campaign explained the success of its anti-bullying awareness program and the hope that it would be emulated by other schools. It all began at a competition called Click View whereby 5 students were selected to develop a social enterprise addressing a problem of their choice. The students decided to address school bullying on the basis they had seen bullying extensively in their classrooms as well as in their friendship groups. From here they developed the campaign which focused on spreading awareness of this issue to reduce its prevalence. The campaign involves each student wearing ‘No h8’ t-shirts and button badges, as well as making a pledge for zero-tolerance of bullying and acknowledging it is a problem in society that needs to be addressed. It received 100 percent participation. It is also planned that each year this pledge be renewed to show continuous and serious efforts. Bye Bye Bully also visited other schools in the local area, providing the opportunity for them to join the campaign and to take a stand against bullying. Beyond this, bullying has also been incorporated into parts of the curriculum, with some English language classes setting essays on the topic of bully prevention.

Rachel commented on the successes that have already emerged, with students writing about their bullying experiences which they have never felt comfortable to do before. One of the 5 students whose idea it was to begin the campaign even opening up that she too had been a bully but would not have been able to realise that and change her actions if not for the campaign. Rachel highlighted the fact that bullying is an issue that is present almost everywhere and one of the best ways to tackle it is to start open conversations. Through this campaign students have been able to do exactly that, and with the nature of the campaign which is very versatile and has a large presence online, there is the opportunity for schools to join and do as much or as little as they like.



All parties when discussing recommendations of how the issue of bullying should be better addressed in schools believed that the feasibility of action to address the problem must first be determined, followed by the relevant stakeholders possessing the necessary will to carry out the remedial measures. An excellent strategy or intervention measure will be of little use and effect without a strong willingness to bring about that change. This being the willingness of schools, teachers, parents and students alike to seriously tackle the issue of bullying.


  1.  Introduction of psychologists and trained counsellors to schools

The introduction of psychologists to schools as a means of addressing bullying is a recommendation that has been widely discussed. All parties agreed that this held out great potential for improving outcomes for students. Dr Goh noted that only 25 to 30 per cent of schools have properly trained and certified counsellors; the remainder have teachers who assume this role without the necessary training in handling the problem. The introduction of psychologists to schools would allow for practices and treatments to be introduced, such as ‘shared concern’, which have been proven to be useful and effective in addressing bullying. It simply cannot be implemented without appropriate training and qualifications of those in charge.

Bye Bye Bully highlighted that it was not feasible to engage such practitioners because of financial constraints. PAGE noted the same problem and recommended the need for the Ministry of Education to allocate funds for this purpose. PAGE proposed that psychologists could be allocated to only problem schools or be rotated amongst such schools.


  1. Building relationships between teachers and students

As mentioned earlier, building strong relationships between students and teachers can reduce incidences of bullying in schools as Dato Frieda noted is the case across Cempaka’s four campuses.

PAGE and Bye Bye Bully also believed that forging strong relationships between teachers and students has the potential to open up dialogue on bullying experiences, a topic that is often taboo or shied away from. By building confidence and empowering students to talk about and address these problems to teachers, Rachel believes that incidences of bullying may be reduced. The best way to approach this being through the formation of trusted relationships and continuous communication. This creates an environment where students feel safe and comfortable to talk about their experiences; and have confidence that where cases of bullying are reported, action will follow. However, Rachel acknowledged that in order for this to occur it requires time and the will on the part of both the teachers and students. In some schools which are under resourced, time is a luxury that many cannot yet afford.


  1. Whole school interventions

Dr Goh stated that the most effective way to address bullying in schools is to change the culture surrounding it, making it an unacceptable behaviour that everyone is able to identify.

As bullies receive a lot of their power from their audience and the acceptance of such behaviour from peers, Dr Goh describes addressing this culture as the turning point. Once bullying behaviour becomes unacceptable in the school community, the bully becomes an outlier. It takes away the motivation to engage in this type of activity.

The bully then is isolated rather than gain support from his or her peers. This also requires education and awareness of what behaviour is characterised as bullying. There should be a clear definition and understanding of what constitutes bullying behaviour and a clear policy that is understood by everyone.

This should be discussed from class to class and done so regularly. With a transparent system which students understand, victims will come forward and report their experiences as they will not have any concern for whether they will be taken seriously and harbour no fear of being victimised further.

PAGE shared Dr Goh’s perspective, stressing the importance of teachers not being soft on bullies and setting a clear example; and abiding by anti-bullying policies to ensure consistent redress is carried out. These polices also require regular review to ensure they are effectively addressing the problem.



Overall, it can be seen that bullying is an issue that is widely prevalent in schools and adversely affects many children. But it can be be tackled. The culture as developed and promoted at the Cempaka Schools and the Bye Bye Bully campaign suggests that it is entirely feasible to bring about change to the school environment to ensure zero-tolerance of this social scourge. After all, we must guarantee that every child and every student have the right to feel safe and protected at school. This requires the collaborative effort and the necessarily will of all stakeholders: parents, teachers, schools, students and the state.

[1] With grateful acknowledgement to Monash University and Ms Nikkei

[2] Bye Bye Bully Malaysia is a movement to raise awareness about bullying in SMK schools: see further https://www.facebook.com/pg/byebyebullymalaysia/about/?ref=page_internal.

[3] Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behaviour: https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it/index.html

[4] PAGE.

[5] https://www.google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=cyber+security+statistics+on+cyberbullying+malaysia&chips.

[6] Dr Goh Chee Leong, PAGE.

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