Compassion not punishment

ONE day when I was 14 years old I left the family home determined that I wouldn’t return. A small boy, lost, scared, confused and angry, had decided to take his own life.

Without going into the details of what happened, I ended up in a hospital, with nurses and doctors who treated me with compassion and care as I undertook the long journey of coming back from the lowest point in my life.

I was lucky in so many ways. Lucky to have survived. Lucky to receive years of counselling and mental health support, paid for and supported by the government’s public health system. Lucky to have made it to where I am today all these years later, where my life is on track, things are going well and the thought of self harm is a distant one.

Lucky that the events of that day happened in my mother’s homeland, Australia, and not my father’s, Malaysia.

Watching the debate in Malaysia about whether suicide should remain a crime or not breaks my heart in a way that all of the other tired political debates in Dewan Rakyat simply cannot.

There is the academic, the theoretical and then there is the personal.

How a country can maintain that the act of suicide, an act of utter desperation and despair, should continue to receive punishment is beyond me. The government talks about the mental health crisis the country is facing, talks about the suicide rate being too high, talks about the issues, but when it comes to action, it dithers and delays.

How a country could continue to have laws which would criminalise that scared and lost 14-year-old boy is baffling. Laws which would make him feel alone and afraid after having survived the unthinkable, the fear that even the prospect of prosecution, however remote, might prevent him from seeking help.

Without doubt more funding is needed for mental health services in Malaysia, a task of providing support which too often falls to unpaid volunteers at organisations like Befrienders. An evidence- based approach needs to be taken to follow best practice examples from around the world.

Decriminalising suicide is not going to solve the issue overnight, but it is about sending signals. Sending signals to those who are struggling with mental health that it is OK to struggle and it is OK to seek help, sending signals to those who survive that what they need is care, support and compassion and not the threat of imprisonment.

Sending signals to society that this is an issue which needs to be taken seriously and addressed, but addressed with a compassionate hand not an iron fist. An iron fist that clearly doesn’t work and has been long abandoned by almost every country in the world, with the exception of a handful of holdouts like Malaysia.

Changing the law in Malaysia is long overdue. It should have happened many years ago, but now is a time as good as any.

When I look back now I want to tell that scared little 14-year-old boy that it will be OK, that things get better eventually and to not give up hope. Every Malaysian struggling with mental health deserves to hear the same, from their family, from their friends, from their community, from the ones who love them and, yes, even from their government.


Melbourne, Australia

Those suffering from problems can reach out to the Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service at 03-2935 9935 or 014-322 3392; Talian Kasih at 15999 or 019-261 5999 on WhatsApp; Jakim’s (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) family, social and community care centre at 0111-959 8214 on WhatsApp; and Befrienders Kuala Lumpur at 03-7627 2929 or go to for a full list of numbers nationwide and operating hours, or email

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