Last year, Parliament was informed that the Attorney-General’s Chambers was studying possible amendments to laws related to suicide. Yet, a magistrate’s court has just fined an unemployed man who had attempted to commit suicide RM3,000 or three months in jail if he failed to pay the fine, “Court fines man RM3k for suicide attempt” (The Star, Aug 4; online at https://bit.ly/3a4mt8I).
Two months ago, a 42-year-old man who attempted suicide by stabbing himself with fragments from a broken glass window was sentenced to one month in prison.
Malaysia remains among the few countries in the world that continues to maintain archaic laws that view suicide attempts as a criminal act. Singapore decriminalised suicide as of Jan 1, 2020. We, however, are still dragging our feet over this issue despite concerns expressed by the Malaysia Law Reform Committee as well as leaders of mental health organisations and mental health experts.
More than 90% of people attempting suicide suffer from major mental illnesses like clinical depression, bipolar disorder or psychosis and should therefore be considered as victims. A psychiatric examination prior to the court proceeding to convict a person under Section 309 would be the preferred course of action.
Section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code allows the magistrate to order the charged person to be assessed for a period of one month at a designated psychiatric facility, pending a submission of a report by the psychiatrist before the trial proceeds.
The magistrate may then sentence the charged person to time already served in the psychiatric ward and order him/her to comply with the psychiatric follow-up as appropriate. There would be no need for a prison term or a fine.
Malaysia must move towards a more compassionate society by destigmatising mental illness and safeguarding the interests of persons with mental illness and their families. Better decision-making processes concerning mental health issues in general and an empathetic approach towards those afflicted will go a long way in creating a compassionate, inclusive and resilient society.
DATUK DR ANDREW MOHANRAJ
President, Malaysian Mental Health Association
Board Member, World Federation for Mental Health