KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Suicides and attempted suicides appear to be yet another critical global public health issue. Many countries the world over has seen a climb in the number of suicides and attempted suicides over the last 2 years.
Malaysia has fared no better. It was recently reported that Malaysia recorded 468 suicide cases in the first five months of 2021, up from an annual total of 631 cases in 2020 and 609 in 2019.
Selangor recorded the most suicide cases at an alarming number of 117 cases in the first five months of this year. By comparison, Johor recorded 101 suicides throughout 2019 and last year. According to the police investigations, three main causes for these suicide cases were family problems, emotional pressure and finances.
Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow also recently statedthat Penang recorded 53 suicides and 19 attempted suicide cases between January, 2021 and May 2021. This worrying spike has called for special attention by the state Health Department especially with a focus on mental health.
According to a UNICEF statement dated 1st July, 2021, ‘872 teens aged 15-18 years old took their lives between January 2019 – May 2021, making up 51% of the total 1708 suicide cases reported in that period of time.
Repeal of Section 309 Penal Code
In Malaysia, a suicide attempt is currently seen as a crime which is punishable by a term of imprisonment or fine or bothas provided for by Section 309 of the Malaysian Penal Code.
Instead of punishment, the focus should be to facilitate access to appropriate care in a professional and sensitive manner. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 59 countries have decriminalized suicide including the whole of Europe, North America, much of South America and few parts of Asia. Data from countries that have decriminalised suicide, including Canada and New Zealand, shows that suicide rates have not increased after decriminalisation. Hong Kong decriminalized attempted suicide in 1967 and implemented effective suicide prevention strategies. India, which shares a similar penal code to Malaysia, recently decriminalized suicide in 2014. In 2019, Singapore decriminalized attempted suicide on the basis that it is a public health and social issue, not a criminal one.
In Malaysia, criminalizing and punishing one for attempting suicide is intended as a deterrent effect to others who might be contemplating suicidal behaviour. Yet there is no data that proves the efficacy of such a deterrent.
Call on Government to Respond
Malaysia too made some headway in the discussions to decriminalize attempted suicide.
On 31st December 2019, it was reported that the Government was considering the decriminalization of attempted suicide.
One year later, on 4th December 2020, it was reported that the AGC was considering amendments to the law relating to attempted suicide in view of the rising numbers of such cases. It was reported that comparative studies had commenced with other jurisdictions relating to said laws.
Most unfortunately, now 7 months later, there has been no news of such decriminalization or amendments to section 309 of the Penal Code.
Instead, in the last year, people who have attempted to end their lives have been convicted and punished, some with a term of imprisonment This includes a case where a court in Kuala Lumpur sentenced an unemployed man who attempted suicide by stabbing himself with fragments from a broken glass window to one month in prison. A person with disability was also not spared a term of imprisonment in February 2020 where a court in Terengganu convicted him under section 309 of the Penal Code for attempting to commit suicide and sentenced him to six months imprisonment.
The escalating number of suicide and attempted suicides cases reflects an urgency for the current administration to take immediate measures. We call upon the Law Minister and the Attorney General to provide an update on the status of the said studies and a clear indication of the stand taken by the current administration on the decriminalization of attempted suicide.
We support the call to impose an immediate moratorium on all pending cases and investigations relating to attempted suicides. The government must show that it is committed to managing this serious mental health issue from a healthcare perspective instead of continuing to penalize survivors, who should instead be given the appropriate support.
Dated 9th July, 2021
Ramkarpal Singh (MP Bukit Gelugor)
Kasthuriraani Patto (MP Batu Kawan)
Sangeet Kaur Deo (Legal Bureau Chief, Wanita DAP)