The Cost of Death: Reviewing Suicide and Criminalisation in Malaysia

Trigger warning: The following article contains discussions regarding suicide, which some readers may find disturbing or traumatizing. Viewer discretion is advised.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 700,000 people commit suicide annually, which would equal to one death every 40 seconds. Suicide is progressively transforming into the main cause of death, as it accounted for 1.3% of deaths in 2019. However, in the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% globally and are the third leading factor of death among younger people, ranging from ages of 15 to 44. With these staggering numbers, suicide has become a topic of global discussion in regards to its prevention, and Malaysia is no such stranger to the subject of suicide. The devastating number of deaths due to suicide goes hand-in-hand with the aftermaths of the Covid-19 lockdown which have brought about severe implications from various aspects, that have heavily burdened people of all geographical locations.

Although the suicide rates in Malaysia have been steadily increasing for the past years, with 2019 recording a rate of 5.70—which is a 5.56% increase from 2018—discussions regarding mental health has never been as fervent as it is now. It is only ever since the lockdown that there exists a pinnacle of heated debates regarding mental health, specifically attempted suicide. This sudden uproar comes after statement releases concerning the statistics of suicide cases in Malaysia.

One such statement came from the director of Bukit Aman Criminal Investigations Department (CID), Abdul Jalil Hassan, who was reported stating that the cumulative deaths by suicide from 2019 until May 2021 amounted to 1,708 cases. According to Malaysia’s Director-General of Health, Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the first three months of 2021 has seen an average of 4 suicide cases per day.  In addition to this, Selangor was reported to have the highest records of suicide cases from January to May, with a total of 117 cases, whereas Johor had the highest suicide rates for 2019 and 2020, which amounted to 101 cases. The main reasons for these suicide attempts were attributed to family problems, depression, and financial issues—problems that were further exacerbated by Malaysia’s declining economy post-lockdown. Moreover, Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, which is an emotional support help center, was cited by the Straits Times for receiving a total of 20, 575 calls from January to June of 2021 alone, which is a stark comparison to the 32, 710 calls they received in 2020, showing a significant increase in citizens’ need to reach out to others upon experiencing emotional distress. 

These shocking numbers have reinforced Malaysian citizens’ concerns regarding the mistreatment of those with mental health problems and who actively seek out treatment or therapy, as well as those who attempt suicide and survive. The recent legal cases against those who attempt suicide have shed ample light on people’s concerns:

In February of 2020, a disabled man was charged with six months in prison by a magistrate’s court in Terengganu following an attempt at taking his own life. This sentence was made after an evaluation by a psychiatric hospital that confirmed that he had depression.

In August of 2020, the Magistrate’s Court reportedly ordered a fine of RM 3,000 against an unemployed man who attempted suicide and ordered him to serve three months of prison should he fail to pay the fine. According to The Malay Mail, Nurilya Ellyna Nor Azmal, who was the Deputy Public Prosecutor involved in this court proceeding, had requested that the court impose such a sentence so that it may be an “appropriate lesson” to the defendant for inconveniencing several parties.

The Legal Perspective 

Individuals who attempt suicide are subject to legal ramifications under Malaysia’s Penal Code, which was enacted under the heavy influence of the British Common Law during a time when mental health was heavily misunderstood. The criminalisation of attempted suicide is outlined distinctly under Section 309 of Malaysia’s 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.”

To fully understand the rationale behind the enactment of such a law, it is vital to comprehend the context of its implementation. Malaysia’s Penal Code is considered a relic of British colonialism and represents the principles of old British society. Hence, the legislation is tied to religious beliefs—as Christianity heavily influenced legal processes during this time—whereby taking one’s life is deemed as a sin as it is discarding the gift bestowed by one’s Creator. Another rationale which has become a repeated justification by many proponents of suicide persecution is that this legislation is capable of maintaining social order as it focuses on using suicide criminalisation as a deterrent to those who are inclined to do so. 

However, many Malaysians have begun to point out the flaws of this logic as the recent statistics prove that persecuting those who attempt suicide has had no impact on preventing others from doing the same. In fact, Dr Brandon Lim Kuok Quan, who is part of the psychiatry department at University Malaya Medical Centre was quoted by The Rakyat Post for stating that criminalisation would only create a heavier mental burden on those who are already troubled as it would convict them as a criminal. 

Malaysia is one of the only remaining 25 countries that persist in sanctioning suicide attempts, with the United Kingdom decriminalising suicide all the way back in 1961 under the Suicide Act 1961. As such, many people still question why Malaysia continues to sanction attempted suicide under laws that were modeled after British colonial ruling, despite these original laws having already been repealed.

Urging Suicide Decriminalisation in Malaysia

In 2019, Singapore’s Penal Code Review Committee successfully repealed Section 309 of their Penal Code as part of the Criminal Laws Reform, which was effective immediately on January 1 of 2020. Following Singapore’s drastic change in legislation, Malaysia began to follow suit, with talks of repealing Section 309 of Malaysia’s Penal Code assuming the role of interest. There appeared to be many parties in Malaysia that were advocating in support of more legislative action towards decreasing the suicide rates and repealing this section of Malaysia’s Penal Code. 

According to The Star, on the 31st of December 2019, Datuk Liew Vui Keong, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, stated that suicide attempts were in the process of being decriminalised as a policy was being drafted by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). The aforementioned policy was expected to enable the amendments to Section 309 by mid-2020, but the rest of Malaysia still awaits its execution. 

As more lives are taken by suicide every day, many are still pressuring the government for an update regarding the amendments to Section 309 that was promised in 2020. The sanctioning of several people who attempted suicide ever since 2020 caused the National Coalition for Mental Wellbeing to endorse the imposition of a moratorium on these sanctions until Section 309 is repealed, as reported by the New Straits Times. Carrying forward with these charges and penalties would be inhumane to those whose lives were already severely disrupted by the movement control orders and were mentally distressed because of it. 

A youth group by the name of Minds First also proclaimed their support in repealing Section 309 as it is deemed as a brutality to those who require the most care and support and creates a negative stigma surrounding mental health, which in turn discourages people to actively seek support and care. The organization initiated an online petition in conjunction with their demands, which has now garnered 21,507 signatures from people nationwide.

Decriminalising suicide remains an urgent issue for many organisations as it would enable preventive care and emphasis on proper healthcare treatment. The impending risk of being sanctioned for attempting to take one’s life casts fears in those who have thoughts about it and incites feelings of guilt for committing a “crime” in the process. For many, repealing Section 309 of Malaysia’s Penal Code would not only shift the blame away from people who are already psychologically burdened, but also pave a way for the destigmatisation of mental health issues and enable room for open discussion in hopes of continuous improvement in Malaysia’s mental healthcare system. Malaysia is still swarming with questions concerning the legality of attempted suicide: should the survivors of such circumstances continue to be punished? Should Malaysia persist in upholding old laws that favour social order over humanism, despite the urgent advocacy from lawmakers, public figures, and youths?

Empathy, compassion, and support for each other remain the sole facilitators in aiding our family, friends, and loved ones through these times of hardship. If you or someone you know is going through a time of crisis, please contact the following helplines:

Sunway University Crisis Hotline: 018-3893220

Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service (MHPSS): 03-29359935 OR 014-3223392

Talian Kasih: 15999 or WhatsApp: 019-2615999

Befrienders Kuala Lumpur: 03-76272929

Jakim’s Family, Social and Community Care Centre, WhatsApp: 0111-9598214

Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA): 03-2780 6803

By: Julia Rosalyn

Edited by: Maki

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