Parliament: MPs divided over decriminalisation of attempted suicide

(Getty Images file photo)
(Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — The criminalisation of attempted suicide must be retained as it is “a more compassionate approach” to deal with the complex issue, said Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza on Monday (6 May).

Speaking in Parliament of his concerns regarding the proposed move to decriminalise attempted suicide, de Souza said that retaining the law signals that “taking one’s life is not the answer to life’s problem”.

The decriminalisation may “send the signal that taking one’s life is acceptable to broader society”, which goes against “society’s thinking”, he added.

As such, preserving the law will save more lives, with the further advantage of preventing euthanasia from taking root in Singapore, de Souza noted.

“Do I believe we should help members of our society who are contemplating suicide? Absolutely. Do I think we should enforce Section 309 (criminalisation of attempted suicide) against people who attempt suicide? In most cases, no. But keeping the provision is still of immense value,” he added.

The proposed move to decriminalise attempted suicide was among the sweeping amendments in the Criminal Law Reform Bill tabled in Parliament in February.

In his opening speech for the bill’s second reading on Monday, Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Amrin Amin noted concerns that the decriminalisation of attempted suicide would reduce the deterrent effect and cause an increased number of suicides.

“However, bear in mind that persons who attempt suicide typically are so distressed that the deterrent effect of criminalisation is very low. The present situation is that hardly anyone is prosecuted and punished for this offence in the first place,” said Amrin.

He added that that the government has not shifted its position on the sanctity of life and that every effort will still be made to prevent suicides.

For instance, the bill amends other laws to ensure that the police will still be able to intervene in suicide situations, such as under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act. The public will still be able to call for emergency assistance in cases where a person is attempting suicide, he added.

He also stressed that the offence of abetment of attempted suicide, including physician-assisted suicides, is still a crime and its maximum imprisonment term will be enhanced 10 times to 10 years.

Where the abetment of attempted suicide is of a minor or person who lacks mental capacity, the higher maximum jail term of 15 years will apply, said Amrin.

If hurt is caused to the minor or the person who lacks mental capacity in the course of the abetment, the maximum punishment is life imprisonment or a jail term that may extend to 20 years.

Handling attempted suicide cases

On Monday, MPs and Nominated MPs (NMPs) who expressed support for the decriminalisation of attempted suicide called for clearer strategies, such as better equipping authorities with skills to respond to such cases or deploying relevant professionals.

“With the rising numbers of suicides with our young and our elderly, decriminalisation of suicides must not be done without reviewing and rebuilding our systemic response towards suicide attempts,” said NMP Anthea Ong.

In 2017, there were 361 reported suicides in Singapore, the lowest since 2012, statistics released by SOS last year show. Despite the drop, the number of elderly individuals aged 60 and above who took their own lives rose to a record 129 in the same year.

Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng noted that while police officers are trained in responding to emergency situations, they may not have sufficient training in handling the complex social and emotional issues associated with attempted suicide cases.

“There is considerable value in having trained professionals who can be at the scene to do any assessment of mental health, or provide psychological interventions where necessary,” said Ng, noting that similar trials have been conducted in the United Kingdom.

In his wrap-up speech, Amrin said that the police have a trained crisis negotiation unit, consisting of police officers and psychologists who are trained in negotiation tactics and suicide intervention.

“Social workers...can be involved later after police have ensured the safety of various parties,” he added.

The MHA will look into some of Ng’s suggestions, Amrin said. These include providing mandatory psychological first aid training for front-line officers as well as expanding the functions under the existing Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF)’s MyResponder app to allow trained social workers or counsellors to respond to cases of attempted suicide in the vicinity.

Amrin also spoke about how he was particularly struck by Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo's first-hand account from his days as a police officer when he served a warning to a semi-paralysed lady who had attempted suicide.

"He said it felt unnecessary and discomforting. With today’s amendments, such warnings will no longer be required," he added.

Responding to questions raised on whether decriminalisation of suicide will impact reporting by the public, Amrin said, “Our experience informs us that callers that call emergency lines for suicide attempts do not call to report crime, they call for help.”

In response to de Souza’s request for a study to be conducted post-amendment, he said that the MHA will monitor the situation. It is important, however, to remember that suicide occurs for several reasons, and an increase or decrease will not be attributable to criminalisation or decriminalisation of the act, Amrin added.

Responding to Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng’s question on the number of reports on attempted suicides, he noted that it has been steady in the last five years, with an average annual number of 1,210.

On Ang’s suggestion to make counselling mandatory for those who have attempted suicide, Amrin said that would mean a need for enforcement.

“Again, we are trying to move away in this area from criminalisation to help, so we must tread carefully in this aspect,” he added.

Related stories:

Meaningful calling: SOS volunteers help people in distress to cherish life

COMMENT: Mental health must be a national priority in Singapore

Proposal to decriminalise attempted suicide tabled in Parliament as part of Penal Code changes