The current federal government must make the progressive and fundamental move to end its archaic suicide law and decriminalise attempted suicide in Malaysia to ensure these individuals are given the necessary therapy and support needed, and not treated as a criminal.
This is the main point of discussions in our meeting with the Deputy Law Minister YB Ramkarpal Singh together with YB Michelle Ng and YB Lim Yi Wei and Dr Ravivarma Rao Paniselvam, a psychiatrist in Miri Hospital.
We received a positive response as well and commitment that this important matter will be persued to properly address this issue. Such reforms and amendments are not new, with more than 60 countries all around the world including the UK, Singapore, India,New Zealand and many more that amended their laws to ensure they are given medical help and support, rather than being criminalised and thrown into jail.
In October 2021, then Deputy Health Minister II Datuk Aaron Ago Dagang told the Dewan Rakyat that the move to decriminalise suicide has started but required some adjustments to the Penal Code.
In March 2022, it was announced that the proposal to amend the Penal Code and decriminalise attempted suicide was still being studied by the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC).
Based on recent data from the Ministry, from 2018 until June 2021, there are a total of 902 cases of attempted suicide that have been prosecuted in court.
This is not only a waste of court resources, but also may aggravate this serious problem.
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.
The current law is “very damaging” to someone who is already feeling vulnerable and may exacerbate the problem, as it pushes individuals to choose more violent and irreversible means of harming themselves to ensure that their attempt is successful to avoid prosecution should they survive.
The criminalisation of suicide does not save lives. There is no evidence that criminalising suicide acts as a deterrent.
Instead, it can have a very negative effect by further perpetuating the stigma surrounding suicide, discouraging at-risk individuals from seeking help during crisis, and marginalising people from trying to access the much-needed help from mental health services.
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. This is evidently seen more during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That is why the government must acknowledge 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.
This has to stop, and tangible steps must be expedited.
For this reason, we urge that the current federal government takes this as a matter of priority and possibly bring the amendments and table it by the next Parliamentary session. In the meantime, a moratorium on all prosecutions for suicide attempts must be declared immediately and a national suicide registry must also be set up immediately to formulate targeted measures to be taken to address the rising suicide rate.
We are aware that the delay in decriminalisation is due to views that enhancements are needed in the law after Section 309 is repealed, and that all these must be done in the same Parliamentary sitting.
We take the view, however, that these enhancements can come after. The repeal bill can be tabled first. This is because attempted suicide charges are still being brought as studies on the substituting laws are being done.
Should there be any concern in there being a lacuna upon repeal — the government can instruct, administratively, for the police to invoke its powers under Section 10 of the Mental Health Act in cases of attempted suicide to admit the person into a psychiatric hospital.
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.
Dr Kelvin Yii is the Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching, Michelle Ng is the state assemblywoman for Subang Jaya, while Lim Yi Wei is the state assemblywoman for Kampung Tunku.
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