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It’s difficult to openly discuss mental health issues in Singapore. Public services are lacking and many Singaporeans choose to remain silent about their conditions in order to stay insured. But recent developments seem to indicate that the city-state is also open to change.
“2020 was a great year for mental health in Singapore,” Porsche Poh, executive director for mental health organization Silver Ribbon Singapore, told VICE World News. While it might sound ironic, considering 2020 was hard on most people due to the pandemic, Poh was referring to a significant milestone for the country. After several years of rallying for reform, Singapore enforced last January a change that had mental health advocates and the community cheering — attempted suicide was no longer a crime.
“It’s teamwork. I think all mental health organizations in Singapore, including [Silver Ribbon], AWARE, and other advocacy groups, have come a long way [in highlighting] those challenges raised by persons with mental health issues and their care-givers,” Poh said.
In the eyes of authorities, attempted suicide was made a crime to oppose people from taking their lives — and the penalties to deter it needed to be severe. Before it was repealed, section 309 of Singapore’s penal code stated that “whoever attempts to commit suicide, and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
The leading suicide prevention organization Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) told VICE World News that some of their clients shared that the law did serve as a deterrent to attempted suicide. However, those who attempted suicide and were prosecuted faced “greater emotional pain and trauma” after the ordeal.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has put forward a number of case studies revealing how people with suicidal thoughts felt as they were being arrested.
“When the police arrived, they arrested me,” one citizen shared. “They explained that it was for my own safety but I felt like a criminal. They put me in handcuffs even though I said I would follow them calmly. I felt so ashamed, like I was some sort of dangerous person.” The arrest came after the citizen revealed that she was having suicidal thoughts to a close friend.
SOS said that decriminalization helps reduce the fear of prosecution associated with early help-seeking.
“When someone is in that state of distress, many of our clients shared that it is a time [when] they yearn for connection, support, and empathy. [The decriminalization of suicide] will allow the focus to be directed towards providing help resources and professional help for recovery,” the organization said.
According to Poh from Silver Ribbon, the law against attempted suicide affected care-givers as well.
“Parents who have a child with depression don’t admit [the child] to government hospitals because they’re afraid the child will be persecuted for having suicidal thoughts. They send children to private hospitals to keep [them] safe, so they incur higher costs,” Poh said.
Singapore’s penal code was modeled after India’s, which originated from English common law. In 19th century England, the law against suicide was a reflection of the predominant view of the time — that suicide was deemed an immoral, criminal offense against God. Later on, the law was retained to prevent accused criminals from escaping prosecution, and not to deter suicide among those with mental health disabilities. In practice, prosecutions arising from attempted suicide have been rare in Singapore. But government legal committees have noted that 1,096 attempted suicide cases were reported in 2015, with 837 arrests. The outcomes, however, remain unclear.
The decision to decriminalize suicide was a long time coming. Silver Ribbon has been advocating this change since 2013, saying that the suicide law “deters the distressed from getting help” and may even motivate people to see a suicide attempt through the first time around. But those in favor of the law argued that removing it could potentially cause more suicides to occur.
“I remember the very day AWARE and Silver Ribbon appealed, I was invited to share my view on the radio station. One listener was commenting and saying ‘are you encouraging suicide by appealing to decriminalize it?” Poh recalled.
There is conflicting evidence about the effect of laws prohibiting suicide attempts on suicide rates. The number of cases did not increase after decriminalizing suicide in Canada and New Zealand, but other studies conducted in places including Sweden and Hong Kong showed that suicide rates were higher in the years following decriminalization.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is a complex issue influenced by a web of variables. “No single approach alone can make an impact on an issue as complex as suicide,” it said. Instead, suicide prevention requires a comprehensive and integrated effort among different sectors. For Poh, whether or not suicide has a place in the penal code is difficult to determine.
“This is challenging for the government. If they don’t include it in the law, citizens may question them for not doing anything. Whenever something happens, citizens put blame [on the government] for not doing enough,” she said.
The decision was also a symbolic one that was met with mixed reactions. Christopher De Souza, a local politician and parliament speaker, argued that criminalizing suicide would “send a normative signal that taking one’s life is not the answer to one’s problem.” Others agreed, saying that keeping suicide a crime would allow authorities to intervene by arresting and placing the affected person in safe environments, like a jail cell, to stabilize their conditions. But ministers like Desmond Tan reaffirmed in parliament that attempted suicide figures in Singapore had declined since it was decriminalized.
“The criminal justice system is not the best way to deal with persons who have attempted suicide because such persons are often under severe distress,” Tan said. He added that the decriminalization of attempted suicide reduces stigma and encourages suicidal people to seek help early.
“The reasons for suicide are multifaceted and complex. Hence, the government has been continuing our efforts to prevent suicides, and we will continue to monitor the situation and adjust our approaches to better assist suicidal persons.”
But what has decriminalizing suicide meant for Singapore?
The revised penal code turns its attention away from suicide attempters and instead maintains its stance on penalizing suicide abetters, in line with section 306 of the penal code. This is to “clearly signal society’s continued opposition to suicide.” People found aiding another in attempting suicide will be punished with a fine and a jail term of up to 10 years, especially if the abettor is found to have had malicious intentions. Meanwhile, the police have certain powers, like to search places, people, and documents, to prevent suspected suicide attempts.
For mental health advocates, the revised law represents an acknowledgment that people attempting suicide “need mental health support, not punishment.” This is especially important in Singapore, where people suffering from mental health issues rarely seek help. The stigma against mental health is reflected in the country’s social structures, from schools and workplaces to its public healthcare system. In an environment that does not adequately support the needs of those with mental illness, advocates say the decriminalization of the suicide law offers a hopeful message.
“[The revised penal code] shows that the government is being caring and inclusive,” Poh said. “It shows that they acknowledge that it’s an important issue to be discussed. It encourages people to seek help. When [people with mental health] struggle alone, they’re less likely to see hope.”