Attempting suicide is illegal, but rare for person to be charged

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Should suicide attempts be criminalised?

In conjunction with World Suicide Prevention Day earlier this month, gender equality group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) called for a repeal of Chapter 16, Section 309 of the penal code, which makes attempting suicide a seizable offence in Singapore.

Those found guilty can be fined, jailed for up to a year, or both.

"Suicide is a matter for social support and public health, not criminal law," said Aware's head of advocacy and research Jolene Tan.

"Treating people as criminals worsens their distress, rather than resolving the underlying difficulties that lead to suicide attempts."

It quoted a 2014 World Health Organisation (WHO) study which states that no data or case-reports indicate that decriminalisation increases suicides. In fact, suicide rates tend to decline after decriminalisation.

The study also noted that of the 192 independent countries and states it looked at, only 35 had criminalised suicide.

Instead of punishing those who attempt suicide, Aware suggested measures such as providing psychological first-aid training to police officers and setting up a specialised unit within the police force that is specially trained to respond to suicide attempts.

However, Miss Serene Ho, who has attempted suicide, disagrees with Aware's stance.

She says when the police informed her that attempting suicide was a crime, it had a deterrent effect on her, adding that they had treated her with compassion and encouraged her to seek counselling.

Knowing that attempting suicide was a crime made her fearful and stopped her from trying again.

She was not charged.

Miss Ho, 41, says the criminalisation of suicide also sends a message that taking one's own life not only traumatises loved ones but also impedes the progress of Singapore.

She says: "Young people with so much ahead of them, ending their lives, would be depriving Singapore of the talent that would help shape the country's future. After all, Singapore's only resource is its people."

Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director for Youth Services at the Singapore Children's Society, also believes that Section 309 is still useful.

She says: "The law is a good thing because it gets people to think twice before they do something selfish.

"Suicide is a selfish act as the person is thinking only about themselves.

"With the law in place, they will think twice because it is illegal."

Though attempting suicide is illegal, it is very rare for the person who attempts suicide to be charged or for the prescribed sentence to be carried out.

In the case that the accused is brought to court, they usually would withdraw the case after the accused has reached a stable state.

Lawyer Luke Lee says: "People who attempt suicide are usually very desponded, and it would be foolish to charge and prosecute them."

The usual protocol when someone gets caught for attempting suicide is to be arrested by the police before being taken to the hospital.

At the hospital, they will be treated by doctors and counsellors and will be released only when they are cleared as stable.

Mr Lee, who has been a lawyer for 27 years, has yet to see a case where someone who attempts suicide gets sent to prison.

However, there has been at least one report of someone who attempted suicide being sentenced to prison.

In 2012, The Straits Times reported that 18-year-old Kathleen Seah Pei Yi, was sentenced to eight weeks' jail after attempting suicide 13 times.

The teenager had been trying to kill herself since she was in Secondary 1 and was remanded for 3½ months before being kept under probation for a year on the condition that she seeks treatment from the Institute of Mental Health.

But just three days after she was released, she attempted suicide again which ended in her eight-week jail sentence.

Her father told The Straits Times that he had no choice but to call the police on her because he felt that "only the police could save her".

  • HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore (24-hour hotline):
    1800-221-4444

    Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788

    Singapore Association For Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

    Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222

    Aware Helpline: 1800-774-5935

The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in Parliament on Tuesday that it was reviewing ways to prevent teen suicides.

Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary, said there are often no warning signs, "so we need to find out the other stressors that were not picked up by the existing system and processes that we have".

This was in response to Mr Lim Biow Chuan, the MP for Mountbatten, who highlighted cases of student suicides that were reported by the media.

A week earlier, The New Paper had reported that two students from a top junior college took their lives within 10 days of each other in August.

Mr Lim asked if these students showed any distress signs before the suicides and why were the warnings not detected.

The topic of teen suicides was also raised by Mr Lim Wee Kiak, the MP for Sembawang, and Mr Saktiandi Supaat, the MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh.

They wondered if a special hotline for teenagers, manned by other teens trained in counselling could be set up, but Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said it was not reasonable.

He said: "Counselling such persons requires relevant training, skills, emotional maturity and understanding of life's challenges.

"I think it would not be reasonable to expect teenagers to possess all these pre-requisites."

According to figures recently released by the Samaritans of Singapore, 27 young people, aged between 10 and 19, ended their lives last year - a record for the age group in 15 years.