Two weeks after attempting suicide in March 2017, a 24-year-old woman was sentenced to a $500 fine or three months in jail by a Malaysian court. Later that same year a Rohingya teenager was jailed for trying to end his life during a protest in Kuala Lumpur.
“No matter how much pressure you are facing, suicide is not a solution, now you’re out of the hospital, you must be charged in court anyway. You must know that attempting suicide is a crime,” the magistrate had said to the woman.
But the antiquated law that treats a suicide attempt as a crime — a relic of British colonial rule also found in the penal codes of Singapore, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — may now be shed.
Two weeks ago, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister instructed the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to review the controversial Section 309, under which someone who attempts suicide can be punished by up to one year in jail, or a fine, or both.
The direction is one of a wave of new government initiatives to improve the nation’s mental health, prompted by the reported suicide of a Malaysian teenager in May hours after asking Instagram users whether she should die.
The tragedy reignited a global debate about the influence of social media on young people’s well-being. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide was the second leading cause of death worldwide among 15-29-year-olds in 2016. In Malaysia, where authorities were already worried about data suggesting rising attempted suicides among adolescents, the death also cast a spotlight on a legal issue medical professionals have long been raising.
The current law is “very damaging to someone who is already feeling vulnerable,” said Dr. Ng Yin Ping, a psychiatrist speaking from Penang state in north Malaysia. “Suicide attempts are often a cry of help. The first priority should be to get the person help,” added the doctor, who is also part of Suicide Prevention Research Malaysia (SUPREMA), a multidisciplinary team formed last year at the National University of Malaysia to reduce suicides through improved research.
A recent media report, citing Malaysian police figures, found that nearly 11 percent of people who attempted suicide between 2014 and February 2018 were prosecuted. Even those who don’t have to face the court suffer “enormous stress” due to the threat of legal action, a situation that can also place “the doctors treating them in a predicament,” Ng said, referring to the mandatory report and investigation suspected suicides trigger.
The big hope for mental health campaigners is that a repeal of the suicide law will help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage vulnerable Malaysians to seek help. By far the strongest risk factor for suicide, according to the WHO, is a previous suicide attempt.
“There’s still a lot of ignorance about mental illness. There’s also a lot of stigma when it comes to suicide. Society, in general, in Malaysia is conservative and religious,” said Victor Tan, deputy chairman of the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the Befrienders, a suicide prevention group. The process of repealing Section 309 could help spark more open conversations about mental well-being and “clear misconceptions that contribute to the stigma of seeking professional help,” he added.
Malaysia can look to neighbor Singapore for a glimpse into the direction future debates might take. Last month the city-state passed a bill repealing its own rarely enforced Section 309. One MP expressed concerns that decriminalization would remove a deterrent to suicide, an idea that harks back to the law’s early Christian roots in Britain. But more MPs lauded the move to stop treating those in distress as criminals. India still retains the colonial legacy of Section 309 in its penal code, a position that has been criticized by campaigners. But a new law enacted last year greatly limits its use in a move toward decriminalization.
It’s unclear how long it will take for Malaysia’s AGC to report on its legal review but a few Malaysian MPs have already spoken out against the archaic law.
Scientific research also supports decriminalization. In a June report she co-authored for the Malaysian Journal of Psychiatry, Ng lays out why, drawing on a key 2016 study that reviews suicide rates in 23 of the 25 countries where suicide is still illegal (separately, the study also identifies an additional 20 countries where suicide attempters could be jailed under Islamic law). The study showed that prosecuting people for attempting suicide did not in turn reduce suicides. The study also found that decriminalizing suicide — as the majority of countries have done — did not increase suicides.
Malaysia’s move to decriminalize suicide is a much-needed step in the much longer journey of destigmatizing mental illness and supporting people to get the critical help they need.