Why criminalising suicide is the right way to go

I agree with the Penal Code review committee that "treatment, rather than prosecution", is the appropriate response to people who attempt suicide (Penal Code review committee: Punishment not the answer for people attempting suicide; Sept 9).

But hasn't this been the intent of the said law - Section 309 of the Penal Code?

In the same report, it says: "While attempted suicide is an arrestable offence, actual prosecutions are rare."

It further explains: Prosecutions are sought for those who "repeatedly attempt suicide" because "only the courts have the power to compel persons to seek treatment, via a mandatory treatment order".

In other words, Section 309 has been used for the purpose of getting suicidal people to seek treatment, without which there could have been no way to get them help. Would the state not nullify its legal power to mandate people to be helped if suicide is decriminalised?

I like to caution against two fallacies that may lead to a rash decision.

The first is the simplistic idea that the Penal Code discriminates against suicidal people.

Every act must be judged based on its merit.

If an act is harmful, then the aim of criminalising it is to announce to society that these acts are not to be done and to ensure that fewer of them are done - for our common good.

The Penal Code does not discriminate against any group of people because offences are always drafted as conduct.

Just because someone may be predisposed to a certain conduct does not mean that this conduct is lawful.

If discrimination is taken to mean targeting specific groups of people who are predisposed to certain behaviour, then laws against theft and drug consumption could be accused of being "discriminatory" towards people suffering from kleptomania or drug addiction.

Every act must be judged based on its merit.

If an act is harmful, then the aim of criminalising it is to announce to society that these acts are not to be done and to ensure that fewer of them are done - for our common good.

The second fallacy is the idea that the law serves only as a tool with which to prosecute.

This is untrue. Some laws play a symbolic as well as educative and preventive role.

For instance, Section 292 of the Penal Code criminalises the possession of pornography. Hardly anyone had been prosecuted by it. Our courts symbolically ban 100 pornographic sites to discourage pornography.

Though unenforced, such laws safeguard a larger moral ecology, which is important for a soundsociety.

When Ashley Madison tried to establish a Singapore website, it was stopped because our society recognised its unsound ideologies promoting adultery among married people.

Had it succeeded, it would have perpetuated actual harm on people and families.

So let's keep Section 309 for its educative and preventive role.

Leo Hee Khian

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2018, with the headline 'Why criminalising suicide is the right way to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe