Bullying in Indonesia’s schools is rife and becoming more violent – we talk to a survivor
Classmates, a teacher, even a gym instructor abused Ruby Astari about her chubby figure, leaving her severely depressed; in a country where two-thirds of high-school students in some cities report being bullied, she is far from alone
“Happy birthday, Ruby. We hope you’ll die soon!” her high school classmates sang merrily on campus as the all too familiar routine of humiliation began. Having experienced bullying throughout her teens and early adult life, in her mid-20s Ruby Astari silently wished a car would run her over while going home from work.
It wasn’t just classmates who would insult and mock her; Astari’s former gym teacher also verbally abused her. A self-proclaimed chubby teen, she recalls the teacher asking why she wasn’t tall and slender, like her sister, and how it felt to be so fat.
Astari started suffering from severe depression as a teenager and then began having suicidal tendencies. Now an English teacher in her thirties, Astari is not shy about speaking out and identifying herself as one of Indonesia’s many bullying victims – one of the lucky ones, who never went over the edge.
Bullying is particularly prevalent among youngsters in Indonesia – ranging from macho posturing to racial slurs, including poking “fun” at the shape of ethnic Chinese citizens’ eyes.
According to data from the NGO Yayasan Semai Jiwa Amini, Java’s main cities of Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya see an alarmingly high rate of bullying at high schools. On average, roughly 67.9 per cent of senior high school students, and 66.1 per cent of juniors in these cities claim to have been victims of either verbal or physical abuse.
Statistics from Indonesia’s child protection commission indicates that such incidents among children are on the rise – they more than doubled from 2,178 reported cases in 2011 to 5,066 in 2014. Sceptics may say that today’s youngsters are too sensitive, and therefore more likely to report cases, and that it’s no big deal. Others decry the culture in Indonesia’s schools, claiming bullying is systemically accepted.
Antisocial behaviour appears to be deep-rooted among Indonesian teenagers. One of the most common forms of bullying occurs in high school when senior students intimidate and rough up first-year students during orientation, known as hazing. It is perceived by many students as a tradition to be upheld. In the most extreme cases, hazing has led to loss of life, as was the case in January this year, when 18-year-old Amirullah Adityas Putra was beaten to death by seniors in the dormitory of a Jakarta military academy.
Although most bullying takes place in school, it also happens in the home. Astari says she was belittled by her family because of her body shape.
“Being the only chubby one among the three children in my family, I’ve always been more familiar with bullying. I’ve been rudely compared to my taller, slimmer sister. I was made to believe that I was not good enough or beautiful enough to have a boyfriend.”
Dr Amitya Kumara, formerly a professor at the Gadjah Mada University’s faculty of psychology in Yogyakarta, spoke to the Post before she died suddenly last month. Kumara said the situation was getting out of hand and must be acted on.
“We are seeing an increasing number of bullying cases [among young people] in Indonesia and also with greater insensitivity,” Kumara said.
She highlighted reports of more aggressive forms of bullying in the country, saying: “It is becoming more violent, with more and more youngsters using sharp weapons.”
In 2016, in the Sumatran city of Medan, the tables turned on one student who had incessantly bullied a younger schoolchild. Sick of being picked on, the victim rallied his friends to attack the bully, equipped with bricks, wooden blocks, and knives. Police broke up the fight, and although no casualties were reported, the fracas was reported in Indonesian media.
More extreme cases include an incident earlier this year when three first-year students in Yogyakarta were beaten to death and 14 others injured as the result of systematic hazing by older students while on a camping trip.
Antisocial behaviour is also prevalent on social media in Indonesia, which is home to the world’s fourth highest population of Facebook users – 80 per cent of whom are adolescents, according to Ahmad Dahlan University in Yogyakarta. A recent study by PhD student Triantoro Safaria found that out of 102 high schools in the city, 89 per cent of students had experienced cyberbullying at least once.
Cyberbullying can occur in any age group, and the case of Yoga Cahyadi indicates how severe the consequences can be.
In 2013, Cahyadi, then 36 years old, chaired the committee of a music festival in Yogyakarta. A few days before the event was due to open, a group of internet users began circulating a rumour that Cahyadi was money laundering. The posts went viral and the festival was cancelled. In a snowball effect, Cahyadi’s reputation and career were left in tatters. Cahyadi became engulfed in depression and soon afterwards jumped in front of a speeding train.
In all likelihood, many more bullying cases in Indonesia go unreported, Astari says, because victims choose to stay silent for fear of retribution – even more bullying.
“If I had told, I’d be the coward, the snitch,” Astari says. “This is also why bullying still exists, because if the victim tells, it only gets worse for them.”
Another form of bullying common among Indonesians is racial in nature. The sprawling archipelagic nation is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, and founded on the philosophy of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or “unity in diversity”. The attempt to nurture a peaceful society has not always been successful, however. During the Asian financial crisis in 1998, riots broke out in Jakarta and other large cities, and Chinese Indonesians were targeted by angry mobs.
There have been many reported cases of Chinese Indonesian students being teased because of their fair skin. Those who study in public schools where most students are of indigenous ethnicity are called names that reference their different eye shape. Chinese students have also reported cyberbullying, with perpetrators making light of the abuse by passing it off as a joke.
In the streets, Chinese Indonesians are also on occasion referred to as Cina (or Chee-na), an epithet that carries negative connotations in the archipelago and in other parts of Asia.
Astari categorises two types of bully in Indonesia. “One is not aware that they’re actually hurting other people, and they just need to be educated. Another is the kind who actually knows what they’re doing, but just don’t care,” she says. “This is all done in the name of stupid fun and jokes, probably to boost their pathetically low self-esteem.”
Allowing the fine line between bullying and “joking” to be blurred contributes to the increasing number of violent acts. Former victims, including Astari, believe that integrated guidance from institutions such as schools, ministries, local governments and NGOs is needed to tackle the problem. Through this, proper education about bullying and how it is not funny could prevent aggressive behaviour and even save lives, she says.
Psychologists say bullying among Indonesian students is a result of various factors. In her interview with the Post, Kumara said it could result from a lack of self-confidence, the inability to cope with problems, weak management of emotions, and a lack of empathy. Triggers could be the bullies’ home lives, how their parents behaved towards them, and whether the bullies act the way they do as a result of harsh treatment by their parents and close relatives.
In Yogyakarta, Kumara said, Gadjah Mada University and a number of schools had been cooperating to carry out peer counselling in an effort to prevent bullying among their students.
“This can be done by conducting campaigns, workshops, seminars, peer group counselling, and other cooperation involving faculties of psychology, schools, and parents that will raise awareness to stop bullying among students in Indonesia,” Kumara told the Post.
Astari says that for a long time, she believed she was nothing but a disappointment to many people, including her parents. “But luckily I had a series of wake-up calls [ …] It’s important to know that victims of bullying are in desperate need of someone to help guide them away from depression.”
Additional reporting by Sharon Hambali