The comprehensive and essential revisions for Singapore’s Penal Code continue to be deliberated upon by the country’s leaders. The changes are said to lead to the repeal of marital rape immunity, increased protection of vulnerable adults and children, and the decriminalization of attempted suicide.

On the matter of decriminalising attempted suicide, several quarters have raised concerns. Specifically, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza is of the view that retaining Section 309 of the Penal Code is “the more compassionate approach” as he believes this “will save more lives” and prevent euthanasia from becoming a norm in Singapore.

According to de Souza, the repeal would signal that suicide “is acceptable to broader society” instead of spreading the message that ‘”taking one’s life is not the answer to life’s problems”.

Moreover, he says that those who attempt suicide will still be given the necessary treatment, support, care and counselling even though the provision is retained.

“Indeed, when this happens, society would benefit from the deterrent effect of the law. This means that the law would help deter some future suicides in society – while, at the same time, the people who need the counselling and care are able to receive it,” he explains.

He also points out how the repeal will remove the requirement for mandatory reporting which he believes steers mentally ill people towards help: “This, in my view, should be seriously reconsidered since removing the requirement for the mandatory reporting of an attempted suicide removes one means, a crucial means, by which the suicidal person can get the professional help he or she needs.”

Nominated MP Anthea Ong holds that the doing away of Section 309 “most definitely helps to de-stigmatise suicides” but is concerned that the repeal “is not supported with a clear post-decriminalisation strategy.”

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“With the rising numbers of suicides with our young and our elderly, decriminalisation of suicides must not be done without reviewing and rebuilding our systemic response towards suicide attempts.

“We must do more to raise awareness of suicide risk factors, shift perceptions on mental health and deepen community-based efforts in active monitoring, reporting and help-seeking,” says Ong.

The legal treatment of suicide attempts in south east Asia and other regions

Attempted suicide — also known as “non-fatal suicidal behavior,” “failed suicide attempt,” “non-fatal suicidal attempt,” or “para-suicide” — is viewed as a criminal transgression in many countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kuwait, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda and Singapore. It is also considered a crime in many Islamic countries.

Incidentally, a large number of the jurisdictions where attempted suicide is prohibited consist of former British colonial territories.

In Asia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh are among the nations that continue to criminalise suicide.

In Singapore, a person who attempts suicide can be incarcerated for up to one year. North Korea also criminalises suicide with an unusual disincentive where the family and relatives of the suicide victim are penalised as a form of collective punishment for the act.

In India, the Indian Penal Code 309 talks of punishment for attempted suicide. However, the Mental Health Care Act 2017 greatly limits the scope of the code for its implementation. The Act states, “Any person who attempts to [die by] suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.” State governments are required to provide adequate care and rehabilitation for such individuals in order to prevent a repetition the attempt.

The Indian Penal Code and the Penal Code of Malaysia say the same thing on attempted suicide: “Whoever attempts to die by 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.”

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In Pakistan, given its Muslim-majority population, laws are built on Islamic principles and guidelines. By the rules of Islam, suicides and attempted suicides are considered criminal offenses under the Pakistan Penal Code 309 of the Criminal Procurement Act, punishable by imprisonment and/ or subject to a financial penalty of up to Rs 10,000. By law, suicide and attempted suicide must be reported to the police for further investigation. Such cases must be evaluated at government-designated medico-legal centers (MLCs) specially authorised to receive forensic cases

Is the law still relevant in today’s Singapore?

With the many challenges that the country is facing today, shouldn’t laws pertaining to suicide be amended to reflect a more humane and science-based approach towards those who endeavor to extinguish their own life?

According to data gathered by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) — an organisation dedicated to providing confidential emotional support to individuals facing a crisis, thinking about suicide or affected by suicide, the rate of suicide is increasing for all demographics. It is the leading cause of death for those aged between 10 and 29 years old and males account for the most suicides at over 66.6% of all suicide incidents. Additionally, the World Population Review cites that in Singapore, the crude suicide rate is 9.9% per 100,000 deaths.

In a 2013 article written by Corinna Lim, Executive Director of Singapore’s AWARE, and from an article on Singapore’s education system published in 2017 at the South China Morning Post, it can be gathered that many observers blame Singapore for having high stress levels which led to a higher rate of suicide.

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There is also much disapproval towards the way Singapore deals with suicide victims and survivors. For instance, reviewers call attention to the fact that suicide survivors should receive treatment instead of getting punished. They argued that someone in a state of mind where suicide is considered an option would be unlikely to consider legal consequence as a strong prevention.

Opposing views

From a religious point of view, life is a trust given by God and isn’t something that humans own.

From some human rights perspectives, one could say that “This is my life and I have the right of what to do with it in whatever way I wish.” This is a personal liberty standpoint where religious authorities or the state has no right to interfere with a person’s thoughts, and actions as long as these don’t harm others.

However, suicide does affect the community from which the mentally-ill person had or has come from. Thus, it is hard to validate the concept that “It’s my life and I can do whatever I want with it.” And, yet, prison doesn’t seem like the answer.

Is there proof that the law has ever averted anyone or will ever foil anyone from committing suicide? Realistically-speaking, a person who attempts suicide is far beyond a point of cognizance of legal deterrents. A person who wants to commit suicide has reached that point where he or she has left prudence and rationality behind.

Instead of a prison sentence, a better path would be where the afflicted person is provided with hope, (further) education opportunities, job prospects and meaningful employment rewards. /TISG