By Lin Wenjian
Princess Aiko of Japan, the eight- year-old scion of Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, made the news for the wrong reasons recently when she became the first member of Japanese royalty to refuse to attend school.
Apparently, she was the victim of pranks and harassment from a few boisterous classmates.
Palace officials say the princess complained of being hit by a ball during a game, although it was not clear if she was specifically targeted.
If even a princess cannot escape bullying, what hope have regular children?
A survey conducted of 4,000 primary and secondary school students here in 2006 revealed that half of them had been called names, laughed at or teased. More than a quarter of them had also been pushed or hit, or had expletives and rude signs made at them.
What can or should parents do if their children are bullied?
Mrs Serene Ong, 37, taught her daughter to stand up for herself.
The bank executive first suspected her elder daughter, now 13, was bullied in her all-girls school when she began asking for more allowance in Primary 6.
She said: 'My daughter had never asked me for more pocket money before and I was sure that I was giving her enough for meals in school.'
It turned out that a few of her daughter's classmates were making her pay for treats at the school canteen for 'going to school later than them'.
'A group of them imposed a system where the last person in the group to get to school had to buy drinks or food for everyone else,' Mrs Ong said, declining to name her daughter and younger son, 11.
She told her daughter to 'stop the practice immediately and to report the matter to her teacher if those classmates demanded for more treats'.
'Fortunately, it worked and they left her alone after that.'
Her daughter is now in Secondary 1 and 'has since not encountered bullying so far'.
Madam Esther Ng, 46, founder of the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth, lauded Mrs Ong's decision to let her daughter stand up to her bullies on her own as 'this enables the child to learn to be assertive'.
But she added that 'parents should intervene if possible because children usually go to their parents only when they really need help'.
Madam Ng, the mother of two boys aged 19 and 20, is also the editor of Breaking The Silence: Bullying In Singapore, a book which reported on the bullying survey.
She said: 'Parents must find out what happened exactly and assess if there is any risk to their children and if necessary, they should take their children to school to prevent any bullying from taking place along the way.'
She stopped short of encouraging parents to go to classes with their children.
'If you were to do that, the children wouldn't be able to establish their own identity and would also be overly dependent on their parents, which is not healthy.'
Another thing parents can do, she advised, is to approach the school for help. The principal could arrange for a staff member to wait for a bullied child at the gate when he goes to school and 'to be personally in charge of his safety', she explained.
Madam Ng, who had witnessed her sons' friends being bullied more than 10 years ago, warned parents not to confront the guardians of a bully.
She said: 'This could result in a fight between parents and the school would be caught in a dilemma between the two parties.'
Ms Liu Yuzhi, who used to teach at St Joseph's Institution Junior, agrees with Madam Ng.
The 29-year-old, who is now studying for a master's degree in hospitality management, recalled one confrontation between parents: 'The parent of the bully refused to apologise for her son's behaviour when another parent approached her and turned aggressive instead. She even sent an e-mail to the other party to try to provoke her.
'In the end, the matter died down when the principal arranged for both parents to sit down for a few rounds of mediation.'
The Ministry of Education developed a school bullying management kit for secondary schools in 2007. It contains information on how school staff can respond and assist students who have been bullied.
A similar package was distributed to primary schools in 2008.
An Education Ministry spokesman told LifeStyle that all schools have full-time counsellors to attend to victims of bullying and 'most secondary schools also have teachers who are honorary volunteer special constabulary officers with the skills to conduct investigations into bullying cases if they occur'.
While Princess Aiko's mother was allowed to attend classes with her, that may not be the case in Singapore.
The Education Ministry representative said: 'We will assess each request on a case-by-case basis. Our priority is to ensure that the personal development of not just the bullied students but all the other students in the class is not affected by the request.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.