25 September 2020

The Penal Code: A Double-Edged Sword to Preventing Suicide Attempts

He could hear the inhalation of oxygen around him, speaking of the ocean — full of life and colour. Yet before his sunken eyes were a haze of dull hues. A cold wash only he could feel. Everyone reiterates of a buoyant but what is the purpose of staying afloat when all will has been washed out? Drowning into soundless oblivion, the weight presses him down into the bottomless pit of the ocean. 

With a firm grip of desolation, the stream of bubbles faded from his nose. His field of vision was now enveloped by the dark indigo body of water. An uncharacteristic moment follows — a hand reaches. Its warmth morphed into rays of hope which towed him back to life. 

But, that glimmer of hope quickly changes and, soon, he finds himself engulfed in nothingness. Helplessly scrambling from the shackles that restrained his rightful movements, he remained by his foundational rights and requested for release, only to be met with a disheartening shout,


“Section 309 of the Penal Code.” 


Echoes penetrated the stillness of air.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded suicide as the second leading cause of death among youths aged between 15 and 19 years old. In Malaysia, a common theme of suicide ideation and attempts among youth flashes on news headlines as a frequent solution towards suppressed emotions and pressures. It’s a hidden pandemic where many Malaysians still fail to realise. 

Malaysia’s one of the few countries which remains the archaic law in statutes, criminalising suicide, and penalising any who attempts or does any act towards the commission of such offence with a punishment of imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, a fine, or both. 

The Penal Code, a legislation that codifies most criminal offences and procedures in Malaysia, was modelled after the Indian Criminal Code. India, similar to Malaysia, was once a British crown colony. Religious institutions were also instrumental in shaping the legal framework today, thus the reflection of religious belief in our law comes as no surprise. Islamic teaching, the main religion in Malaysia, views suicide strictly as sinful and detrimental to one’s spiritual journey. 

Considering these two reasons, the Penal Code was subsequently adapted into Malaysian Laws. In Malaysia where religion plays a vital role in shaping society’s morale and values, criminalisation remains to act as a deterrent effect. 

But, in actuality, it’s a double-edged sword. 

The status quo in Malaysia entails a history of characterisation by the context of family, community, and social reputation. (In other words, to have ‘face’.) This culture of regard has frequently foster stigma and discrimination towards symptoms deviating the norm. There’s an expectation, held by many Asians, to be high functioning individuals. The contrary, then, are undesirable attributes. With the intrinsic stigmatisation conditioned in our country, criminalisation further asserts the contention. 

The ordeal is yet the full picture: 

  • An unemployed 24-year-old, who has the burden of her mother’s lung cancer treatment riding on her back, was still sentenced with a fine of RM2,000 or three months’ imprisonment.

  • A 38-year old disabled man wasn’t only without a lawyer but strained to plead guilty for a commutation of six months in prison.

Where every thought is a battle, every breath is a war. The overwhelming impulse to just end it all is met with an eventual to and fro of legal prosecution leading to investigations and other aspects a crime would warrant. Oftentimes this includes police interrogation, being bound in a prison cell or a hospital bed, and encountering all that a criminal suspect experiences.

However, the intention of deterrence takes no achievement. The WHO consistently expressed that as opposed to deterring individuals from endeavouring suicide, criminalisation discourages them from seeking treatment thus, expanding the risk rather than reducing it. The plain fact is that the comprehension of the consequences would only amplify measures taken to guarantee evasion of the resulting indictment. Thus, increasing mortality rates. 

In place of a legislative framework lacking compassion and humanity, society must devise approaches to address the neglected needs of individuals with self-destructive inclinations. Singapore is a nation that has realised that ‘Every suicide is a tragedy. Every suicide attempt is a cry for help.’ Ever since the 1st of January 2020, where the decriminalisation process of the Penal Code has been initiated, information or case reports demonstrated decriminalisation decreases suicides.

Irrespective of whether decriminalisation impacts suicide rates, a holistic approach ought to be considered rather than a one-size-fits-all expectation that criminalisation will bring forth a guaranteed effect of deterrence. The story behind the attempt should be the core interest because, when suicide comes into play, it doesn’t mean the person is suddenly appealed to death but rather they’re faced between two circumstances and when the invisible rope has dug too deep into their flesh, it's hard to let go.

Much of this stigma is inherently attached to suicide culpability. The expression ‘commit suicide’ immediately labels the victim of psychological instability as an offensive criminal. Consequently, decriminalisation progresses the normalisation of mental struggles and eliminates the culture of discriminating survivors. Rehabilitation, where interventions are set to enhance and restore functional ability and quality of life, should prevail in the concept of law to form a fertile soil in which a great recovery can take root to blossom. 

As morally composed individuals, we’d all frown upon the prejudice. But would your politically correct answer extend towards scenarios of inconveniences as well? Would your compassion and understanding remain when you’re late for work but your commute is brought to a halt due to a suicide attempt? Would you grumble at the thought of their selfishness and disruption it adds to your routine?

In conjunction with #SuicidePreventionMonth, let’s take a step back to see how we can serve as lifelines in transforming their canvas into crisscross of iridescent colours.

Megan Choong Jieh Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Law (LLB) at Taylor's University. She is also the Deputy Secretary General and Assistant Director of the TLMUN annual conference, Director of HR for Taylor's Legal Aid Centre, Director of Public Relations for Centre of Research and Development of Law in Asia, as well as the sub-editor for Lexicon.

Megan Choong Jieh Yue
Guest Contributor