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Case Study of Decriminalisation in Malaysia
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Case Study of Decriminalisation in Malaysia


Case Study of Decriminalisation in Malaysia

The historical criminalisation of suicide has impacted and influenced Malaysia's approach to mental health and crisis support, reflecting both colonial influences and religious beliefs. However, recognising the need for a more compassionate and modern approach to suicide prevention, Malaysia recently embarked on a journey to decriminalise suicide. This case study explores the legislative changes, the impact of the campaign, stakeholder engagement, and the role of policymakers in addressing the issue, which ultimately led to comprehensive mental health reform in the country.

Historical Context

Malaysia's criminalisation of suicide can be traced back to the British colonial era, when the Penal Code was first enacted (in 1936). Drawing inspiration from the Indian Penal Code, the legislation incorporated the crime of attempted suicide under Section 309. The influence of British law and religious doctrines that deemed suicide sinful further solidified its criminalisation over time. Additionally, England and Wales, whose sovereignty and direct rule were subsequently imposed on Malaya, also considered attempted suicide a punishable crime.

The Legislative Reform

While the United Kingdom decriminalised suicide in 1961, Malaysia retained the laws inherited from its colonial past. However, a significant milestone was achieved in 2023, when Malaysia's parliament passed three bills to decriminalise suicide attempts. The first bill focused on abolishing Section 309, which previously punished suicide attempts with imprisonment, fines, or both. The second bill addressed the abetment of suicide, particularly concerning children and incapacitated persons, under Section 305 and Section 306, respectively. The third bill, known as the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill 2023, aimed to empower crisis intervention officers to intervene and help individuals attempting suicide.

Advocacy and Stakeholders – The Movement for Change

These legislative reforms were met with unanimous support in Malaysia's parliament, reflecting a growing awareness of the need for a compassionate and holistic approach to mental health. Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Ramkarpal Singh, emphasised that decriminalisation would serve as a stepping-stone to help those in need and encourage them to seek assistance without fear of prosecution. Research from various countries indicated a decrease in suicide rates after amending or abolishing laws that criminalised suicide, and suicide attempts, providing further support for Malaysia's decision.

“We believe that as a result of in-depth research and so on, what needs to be done in cases like this is to treat and not to criminalise an act of attempted suicide.” - Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Ramkarpal Singh.

The success of the decriminalisation campaign can be attributed to extensive stakeholder engagement. LifeLine International played a crucial role in advocating for legal reforms and raising awareness about the importance of decriminalisation. Working alongside local organisations, community leaders, and government bodies, LifeLine International promoted these legal changes and ensured the establishment of comprehensive support systems. We utilised our extensive network to share knowledge, best practices, and research on the impact of criminalisation on suicide prevention efforts and on crisis support services, ensuring that the campaign resonated with diverse cultural contexts.

“We believe that any life lost to suicide is a tragedy. Lifeline offers support for those experiencing despair so they can cope with difficulties in their lives and develop hope for the future. Laws against suicide are barriers to people talking about their suicidal thoughts or seeking help. Lifeline International wishes to see these laws replaced with contemporary, effective, suicide prevention strategies and accessible services.” - LifeLine International CEO Thilini Perera.

The Onflow Effect of Change

Policy: Ramkarpal Singh, while addressing Malaysia's parliament during the reform process, emphasised the need to shift from prosecution to medical treatment, aligning with approaches taken by other countries. By decriminalising suicide, Malaysia could provide individuals with timely access to mental health care, prevent legal processes from delaying necessary treatment, and encourage individuals to reach out for help at their time of crisis, without fear of legal consequences.

“The existence of Section 309 was a provision from the 19th century because it was seen at the time that criminalising suicide would be an act of prevention. But nowadays, medical treatment, and not prosecution, is the best way to address the matter, based on approaches by other countries.”- Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Ramkarpal Singh.

Mental Health Acts: Following the successful passage of the bills to decriminalise suicide, the Malaysian government plans to introduce amendments to the Mental Health Act. These amendments would define the powers and responsibilities of crisis intervention officers, including their ability to apprehend individuals showing signs of mental instability and posing a danger to themselves, others, or property.

Crisis Support: By providing crisis intervention officers with the necessary authority and resources, Malaysia aimed to improve the response to mental health crises and ensure the safety and well-being of individuals in distress. This also paths the way for more crisis support interventions and crisis support services. This is a global priority for LifeLine International.

“The move by Malaysia to decriminalise suicide is extremely important and positive. The criminalisation of suicide makes it difficult for individuals to seek help and for support providers to offer it. It increases stigma around suicide and contributes to the under-reporting of deaths by suicide and suicide attempts, which in turn makes it difficult for governments to take positive actions towards suicide prevention. Other countries where suicide is a crime must now follow Malaysia’s example.” - Sarah Kline, CEO of United for Global Mental Health.

Community: The legislative reforms also sought to address the issue of cyberbullying and its impact on mental health. The amendments expanded the scope of criminal offenses related to abetment, specifically focusing on cyberbullies who incite or influence suicides, particularly among children and individuals with mental disabilities. This step aimed to protect vulnerable individuals from online bullying and create a safer digital environment. Recognising the link between depression and suicide, the reforms aimed to address root causes by providing individuals facing depression with the necessary support and resources. This additional reform was a welcome step, showing the importance of suicide prevention efforts across different portfolios.