An interesting discussion has been taking place in the Voices pages of Today. It concerns the de-criminalisation of, not the infamous Section 377A, but Section 309 of the Penal Code. This punishes those who attempt suicide with a year’s jail or a fine.
There is something similar between the two sections. They are rarely enforced. The reason for not throwing an already suicidal person in jail is so as to not aggravate the person’s emotional state. I suppose you can’t tell what such a disturbed person might resort to if imprisoned.
But representatives of two groups, Aware and Silver Ribbon, have written to talk about a woman who was jailed after repeated suicide attempts. They did not elaborate on the case. They released some figures: From 2010 to 2011, the suicide mortality rate doubled among those aged 65 to 74 and those aged 85 and above. From 2008 to 2009, suicide among those aged 10 to 29 rose by 40 per cent, increasing from 64 to 91 deaths.
For every suicide death, there are seven suicide attempts. Arrests for attempted suicide have increased, from 706 in 2007 to 986 last year. Gosh! Now these figures I didn’t know. I believe Singapore’s suicide numbers are like one a day. So times seven…
They acknowledged that most arrests do not lead to charges, but argued that the arrest and investigation processes are traumatic enough for the individual and the family. Also, this sword hanging over their heads might actually deter the suicidal from seeking treatment or they would make sure they do the deed, hmm, properly. It’s a public health problem, not a criminal case, they argue.
The “relative infrequency of charges’’ reflects the “tacit understanding’’ that criminal law is the wrong tool for this problem, they said. As for the discretion given to police and magistrates to lay charges, the process iis “neither transparent nor reassuring’’ to those in distress.
You know what all this is leading up to: The section should be repealed.
Another letter-writer counter-argued, citing British law lord Patrick Devlin, He propounded that the legal enforcement of morality is necessary for the survival of society, which is constituted of ideas about how its members should behave. So if citizens are free to end their lives, society’s moral structure may crumble. Suicide then becomes not only an offence against an individual, but one against society.
“While there may be cogent reasons for decriminalising it, we should not view Section 309 of the Penal Code as nothing more than a law that penalises a person. Otherwise, we risk oversimplifying why criminal law is justified in our society.’’
He was joined by another letter-writer, who referred to what jurist A L P Hart said: That although people should be free to do as they please if they do not harm others, it is justifiable to criminalise certain acts to prevent people from making choices without adequate reflection or appreciation of the harm they may do to themselves. Examples of these laws include the mandatory use of motorcycle helmets or even the laws against drug abuse.
The letter-writer said that most cases of attempted suicides are referred to institutions for medical treatment, which makes it clear that the focus is on the medical, not the criminal aspects of the person’s failed attempt.
“Even so, the legislation itself meaningfully reflects our morality and how our society values life. Most of us do not attempt suicide, not because of the law but because we want to live. For a small segment of the population, the law deters and, in extreme cases, punishes. In this sense, it has instrumental value.’’
What are we to make of this discussion?
I dug up the case of the woman who was jailed. She is an 18 year old who received an eight-week jail sentence in November last year. She had tried to kill herself 13 times. The news report said that her family called the police after attempt No. 10 because they believed it was the only way to keep her safe.
She then spent 31/2 months remanded in custody before a judge placed her on a year’s probation, on condition that she sought treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). Apparently, she wasn’t found suitable for a mandatory treatment order (reason not stated) but the judge was convinced she needed medical help.
Three days after she was released from remand, she tried to kill herself again, before going on to make two more attempts.) That’s how she got jail-time, for breaching probation and Section 309, among other things.
The young woman didn’t exactly serve the eight-week jail time, as her sentence was backdated. She went home after the judge admonished her to “get treatment’’. As far as the family was concerned, they wanted her to live, even if it meant calling the police on her.
If this was the case cited in the letter calling for Section 309 repeal…well, I think the circumstances are rather more complex than what the letter writers let on.
Notwithstanding the case, I suppose one issue is: why is it even in the books, if it’s not enforced, just like the other infamous section which I will not name. As for the argument that it’s in the books as a marker of society’s values, that has a familiar ring to it too.
Actually all I want to know is: How many individuals have been charged for attempting suicide over the years? How does the police decide whether to arrest someone, or let him/her go (a lot of people are probably let off given the high attempted suicide numbers). What is the investigation process that follows arrest like? How many are referred for medical treatment?
Some transparency would be good.