The Criminalisation of Suicide in Malaysia: Still Relevant or Outdated?

Did you know suicide is an offence in Malaysia? 

Heartbreaking it is to be admitted, with the current pandemic, the number of suicide cases has seen a substantial increase.

What is more saddening, the current law seems to be handling these repeated cases by penalizing those who attempt to commit suicide with fines or terms of imprisonment. In the case at hand, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, a member of The Mental Health Advisory Council urges the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to review the law which had been put forward by the relevant ministry to repeal the provision.

The goal of this article is to explain Malaysia’s position on suicide and to discuss the varying views to whether such a position should continue to stay today.

What does the law say about attempting suicide in Malaysia?

Malaysia is one of the few remaining countries that still criminalises suicide. There are currently two parts in the Malaysian Penal Code that revolves around suicide. The first is focused on the criminal offence of attempting suicide under Section 309 of the Penal Code, while the second is focused on the offence of abetment of suicide under Sections 305 and 306 of the Penal Code.

Section 309 of the Malaysian Penal Code states:

“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.”

Section 305 states:

“If any person under eighteen years of age, any insane person, any delirious person, any idiot, or any person in a state of intoxication, commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide shall be punished with death or imprisonment for a term which may extend to twenty years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Meanwhile Section 306 affirms:

“If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

For the purpose of educating the public pertaining the laws on attempting suicide, this article we will solely focus on the archaic nature of Section 309 of the Penal Code.

Recent charges under section 309

On the 23rd of December 2019, a disabled man has been sentenced 6 months to prison as he pleaded guilty of trying to attempt suicide at his own house in Kuala Terengganu. The survivor should have been given treatment  and been shown compassion and kindness.

In another news report, a 28-year old man, whose actions went viral on social media, pleaded guilty of attempting suicide on August 1st 2020 and was fined RM3,000. The unemployed man was also ordered by the Magistrate if he fails to pay the fine, he will be serving three months in jail.

To add, another news portal reported, after being depressed with marital problems after divorcing his ex-wife, a man was suspected of trying to attempt suicide, on February 19 2021. Currently, the man is being investigated under Section 309 of the Penal Code.

These separate scenarios share a glimpse into the realities of suicide survivors in Malaysia.

Why is suicide criminalised in Malaysia?

The Malaysian Penal Code was put into effect based on the British Common Law, which was implemented back when we were still a British crown colony. Regardless, we did not directly copy from the British Laws. The Indian Criminal Code was the actual base of our Penal Code, which is essentially a list of all criminal penalties in Malaysia. They embraced the British legal system back when India was colonized by the British. The British assumed that the version in India worked well enough and adapted it when the British came to Malaya, but they also added a little bit of the laws from Australia, another British colony.

The question is, why did the British criminalise suicide in the first place?

According to a research by Sheila Moore, the process of criminalising suicide can be traced back during 5th Century A.D., when St. Augustine, a philosopher, made a declaration that suicide is a sin. The declaration gave much effect on the political landscape as well as religious indication to criminalise suicide. It is to assume that the English Law was shaped with the influence of religion. Thus, they perceived suicide as an immoral act and whoever died by suicide is committing an offence to God and the King. In addition, criminalizing and punishing one for attempting suicide was intended as a deterrent effect to others who might be contemplating suicidal behaviour.

In Christianity, it is provided in His command that Thou shalt not kill. This has implied that only the Lord can take one’s soul or liberty because He gave them both and naturally He can take away both of them. 

One of the ways in which individuals and societies structure their lives is through religion. In Malaysia, religion plays a vital role in shaping the society’s morale and values as various religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism are practised by its citizens. Many of the world’s religions have traditionally condemned suicide because, as they believe, human life fundamentally belongs to God. Therefore, religious influence may be one of the reasons decriminalisation efforts have seen slow progress in Malaysia. 

Why should suicide be decriminalised?

The current legislation, although it is very insensitive, seems to be dealing with suicide by punishing those who attempt to take their own life with terms of imprisonment or fines.

On this matter, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, a member of The Mental Health Advisory Council urges the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to accelerate the study of proposals that had been put forward by the relevant ministry to repeal the provision. 

He claimed that the criminalisation of suicide is archaic and should be reviewed. He argues that the decriminalisation of such laws will lower the number of suicide cases as the support of criminalising suicide will give a false representation that suicide behaviours are less prevalent. This is due to the fact that suicide attempts are hidden and the number of cases of death by suicide remain unreported.

There is no evidence showing that decriminalization increases suicides but the numbers actually declined.

In a study published by the Malaysian Journal Of Psychiatry, there is no evidence showing that decriminalization increases suicides but the numbers actually declined. The study further argues, among those who have died by suicide or have attempted suicide, at least 90% were found to have at least one mental health condition. This indicates that the majority of people who try to attempt suicide or self-harm are in immense emotional pain.

The study also states the mental state of the survivor may worsen as the current legislation is punishing those who have attempted suicide instead of giving them the medical treatment and moral support that they should receive. It can further raise the stigmatization surrounding mental health and suicide in most parts of the world and discourage people from seeking the help they really need. People who are being prosecuted, for instance, may be deterred from revealing their suicidal ideation, which can be a response to an illness or crisis for the most part and this has been identified as one of the main obstacles to suicide prevention efforts.

Furthermore, the study noted that there is currently no scientific evidence to support the notion that the threat of prison sentences has a preventive effect on suicide attempts. In addition, it would impose more costs for the government to convict those who have attempted suicide.

To add, of the 192 independent states and countries analyzed, 25 have specific laws and sanctions for attempted suicide, including Malaysia.

Countries that have decriminalised suicide 

Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies over 59 countries across the world that have decriminalised suicide. Attempted suicide is decriminalised in North America, all of Europe, most of South America and some parts of Asia. Even United Kingdom, of which the British Common Law formed the basis of our Penal Code, decriminalised suicide in 1961 while India, which shares a similar penal code to Malaysia, recently decriminalised suicide in 2016.

UNITED KINGDOM 

In 1958, a ‘more compassionate and merciful perspective’ towards suicide was urged by the British Medical Association and Magistrate Association. A bill to decriminalize suicide was tabled in the British parliament in the same year; 150 MPs immediately signed it. The Church of England joined the calls for change a year later and the Suicide Act 1961, which decriminalized suicide in England and Wales, was introduced three years after it was tabled. People who commit suicide are not going to be prosecuted anymore.

INDIA

It is stated above in a news article that while India shares a similar legislation of Malaysia against attempted suicide , India has decriminalized the act. In March of 2016, India’s lower house of Parliament managed to pass the Mental Health Bill 2016, which recognizes a suicide victim to be under severe stress when trying to commit the act and is not prosecutable for doing so. This Act aims to decriminalise attempted suicide and ensure the victims are offered an opportunity for rehabilitation.

The Bill reads “Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code,” 

The Bill defines mental illness as “a substantial disorder of thinking, mood, perception, orientation or memory that grossly impairs judgment, behaviour, capacity to recognise reality or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life, mental conditions associated with the abuse of alcohol and drugs”.

SINGAPORE

As of January 1, 2020, attempted suicide has been decriminalised in our neighbouring country, Singapore. The move, instead of treating it as a crime, is one that recognizes it as a cry for help.

It is part of a wider analysis to restructure the penal code of Singapore, introduced in 1871 and modeled on the penal code of India, which originated from English common law. Britain and India both decriminalized suicide attempts in 1961 and 2016, respectively.

What are the current development of decriminalisation suicide in Malaysia?

On 3rd of December 2020, in a written parliamentary reply to Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh, the Ministry of Health stated that 465 suicide attempts had been reported and that treatment was received in the hospitals of the Ministry of Health from January to July 2020.

However, the ministry also mentioned that these figures refer only to cases receiving treatment at the ministry’s hospitals, further stating that they were not caused by the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic alone.

The Ministry said that 9,502 cases of mental disorders and suicidal behavior were reported by its Health Informatics Centre from January to July 2020, and 14,673 such cases from January to July 2019.

In a written parliamentary reply to Permatang Pauh MP YB Nurul Izzah Anwar on December 8 2020 , the Prime Minister’s Department stated that the government had taken the chance through the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to study laws relating to suicide attempts and abetment of such attempts, both of which are presently criminal offences in Malaysia. The study aims to look at the comparative analysis of laws in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India and Singapore concerning suicide attempts 

Instead of treating them as criminals, the government has said, the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) is reviewing the idea of directing those who have attempted suicide to seek treatment at medical facilities.

To add, The Prime Minister’s Department said the AGC had taken this effort because of statistical data up to 2015 showing the rising number of suicide attempts across all age groups, indicating that a more holistic approach was needed.

Regarding Budget 2021’s allocation for mental health, the Perikatan Nasional government has allotted RM 24 million to increase programmes to address mental health issues, violence and abuse prevention, also substance abuse. The Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Abdul Aziz said the Health Ministry’s psychosocial helpline had received over 35,000 phone calls from distressed people between March and October in 2020. Among the callers were those suffering from depression, anxiety and stress.

However the budget for mental health services and infrastructure has observed an overwhelming 61% reduction from RM 69 million in 2020 to RM 26 million in 2021. As it stands, the current government has allocated the lowest monetary allocation for mental health services and infrastructure to date.

To conclude, it can be seen and with full of hope that Malaysia is closer in joining the bandwagon with other countries to finally end this archaic law but due to the suspension of parliament, passing this act can be quite challenging and cases are still rapidly increasing as MCO has been extended. Repealing Section 309 will not only break stigmatization around mental health but also encourage people to talk about mental health awareness.

How can you help?

MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD

Email the parties below and urge them to #DecriminaliseSuicideNow

  • Malaysian Ministers
  • Respective Members of Parliaments
  • Local Malaysian suicide prevention organisations
SIGN THE PETITION
  • Minds First – Decriminalise suicide in Malaysia now
  • This petition is urging Members of Parliament and the Attorney General’s Chambers to immediately repeal Penal Section Code 309 and replace punishment for suicide attempt with crucial psychological support to those in need.
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 If you or anyone you know may be at risk of suicide, please call the 24-hour Befrienders hotline at 03-76272929. Please do  know that the community is here for you. You are safe and loved.

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