Decriminalise Suicide Now — Arjun Thanaraju

By CodeBlue | 12 February 2020

The repeal of archaic laws on attempted suicide can save lives.

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Imagine this – unable to cope with the overwhelming stress you’re under, you attempt to end your own life by hanging yourself from the ceiling of your home, but somehow fail.

In the months following your failed attempt, you are investigated for committing a criminal offence and subsequently sentenced to six months in jail for your actions.

With your desperate cry for help being met with court orders and imprisonment, you begin to wonder if dying would have been the better outcome. Sounds dystopian? Unfortunately, for 38-year-old disabled Malaysian Mohamad Sani Isa, this is his reality.

On February 2, 2020 Isa pled guilty to attempting suicide when the charge was read in front of Magistrate Nordiana Abd Aziz and was thereafter sentenced under Section 309 of the Penal Code which states that “whoever attempts to commit suicide, and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both”.

Rights groups Lawyers for Liberty and The National Human Rights Society, along with members of the general public, came to Isa’s defense, calling for the “inhumane” sentencing to be overturned.

In light of Isa’s sentencing and local police statistics which show that approximately 11 per cent of cases involving those who failed to commit suicide between 2014 and 2018 were taken to court and charged, three important questions arise: (1) Why was suicide criminalised to begin with? (2) Why must suicide be decriminalised? (3) Why hasn’t suicide been decriminalised?

Historically, the criminalisation of suicide stems from religious doctrine which posits that only God has the right to determine when a person will die. Therefore, the act of ending one’s life is considered sinful as it goes against the will of God.

Informed by such beliefs, which mirror many religious teachings still practiced in Malaysia today, laws around the world criminalised suicide to deter people from attempting to commit the fateful and supposedly wrongful act.

Interestingly, while countries such as India, whose penal code the Malaysian Penal code is modelled after, have since decriminalised suicide, Malaysia continues to maintain this anachronistic law.

Criminalisation of suicide, however, does not save lives. Research has shown that countries which criminalise suicide do not differ in their suicide rates compared to countries where the act has been decriminalised.

In other words, punishing those who attempt suicide does not help to reduce the number of suicides in the country. If anything, criminalising suicide would only push individuals to choose more violent and irreversible means of harming themselves to ensure that their attempt is successful to avoid prosecution should they survive.

Furthermore, criminalising suicide does not address the underlying factors such as poor mental health and arduous living conditions which drove the individual to attempt suicide in the first place. For instance, when 24-year-old Malaysian Yew Kah Sin attempted to commit suicide three years ago after failing to cope with the immense pressure of having to care for her cancer-stricken mother while being unemployed, she was fined RM2,000 by the court for her actions.

Instead of receiving the financial and psychological support she so desperately needed, the already indigent woman was forced to pay a hefty fine. How could this possibly deter her, or others, from attempting to commit the “offence” again in the future?

There is obviously a disconnect between the intentions and the implications of enforcing Section 309. Currently, the law only serves to punish those already in distress, further worsening their suffering.

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Law recently stated that “there must first be sustainable and viable mechanisms in place for these individuals to access mental healthcare before the law is amended to decriminalise suicide”.

However, the Minister fails to recognize that the very existence of such archaic laws perpetuates the stigma surrounding suicide, which then discourages at-risk individuals from seeking help during crisis, increasing their likelihood of committing suicide.

Considering the evidence against the effectiveness of criminalising suicide in reducing suicide rates discussed earlier, maintaining Section 309 of the Penal Code does nothing but delay or deter people from reaching out for help.

In response to Malaysia’s delay in decriminalising suicide, president of the Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA), Anita Abu Bakar, suggests that the relevant parties lack knowledge and understanding of the complex interaction of risk factors leading to suicidal thoughts and behaviours, causing them to miss the urgency of amending the law and protecting vulnerable Malaysians from unjust prosecution.

Consequently, individuals like Isa continue to be punished by the law for something completely out of their control. This must end.

While the government’s commitment to decriminalising suicide is promising, there is a need for the process to be expedited. In the meantime, individuals like Isa should be cared for with compassion and sensitivity, not hostility and enmity.

Encouragingly, Malaysians are becoming more aware and understanding of mental health and its associated challenges due to increased conversation and education on the subject.

We must now ensure our legislation develops alongside our progressing society to build a nation where individuals can seek help for their mental health challenges without fear or hesitation.

Arjun Thanaraju is an intern with the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.
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