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Rapidly rising suicides should jolt Malaysia's leaders into action

Criminalization must be replaced by treatment and care

| Malaysia
Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, Malaysia is suffering from an amalgamation of related crises.   © Sipa/AP

Marina Mahathir is a writer and human rights activist based in Kuala Lumpur.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed, a picture on a friend's account stopped me short. It showed a large man in a T-shirt and shorts hanging by the neck from a Kuala Lumpur bridge. Upset, I messaged my friend to tell him to delete it.

He said his intention had been to raise awareness of a surge in suicides in Malaysia, much as video footage of George Floyd being killed by U.S. police galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. But suicide is different because there are no obvious signs of vulnerability, like skin color. And that is the problem.

Alongside COVID-19, Malaysia is suffering from an amalgamation of related crises, including soaring joblessness and its attendant impact. Although unemployment dropped slightly to 4.5% in May, the Malaysian Statistics Department's definition of employed persons includes those who work just one hour a week and who may be unpaid workers in a family enterprise. These are people who may still be working at food stalls, for example, but find their incomes slashed because there are no customers.

Domestic violence has soared as tensions have risen between spouses cooped up by movement control orders, as Malaysia's lockdowns are called. Women's Aid Organization, an NGO that supports abused women and children, reported a 360% increase in distress calls during Malaysia's first lockdown last year.

For many, though, Malaysia's most shocking social problem is a growing mental health crisis and its increasingly common symptom: suicide. The Royal Malaysian Police force has just released the astonishing figure of 468 suicides in the first five months of 2021. That is an average of three a day, nearly double the rate in 2020.

A man prepares to open his food stall in Subang Jaya in November 2020: some people may still be working but find their incomes slashed because there are no customers.   © Reuters

Although that remains low compared to some other Southeast Asian countries, the spike is noticeable for two reasons. For Malaysia's Muslim majority, it is a sin to take any life, including one's own. Furthermore, attempting suicide is a criminal offense that attracts a maximum penalty of a year in jail, a fine or both.

In February 2020, a disabled man was jailed for six months for trying to kill himself. In June, an unemployed man was imprisoned for a month for the same offense. Arbitrary sentencing has led many NGOs to call for decriminalization of attempted suicide in favor of psychological treatment.

According to police, suicides this year mostly involved women and young people aged 15 to 18. "Teenage girls show higher rates of mental health difficulties and suicidality than teenage boys due to more significant hormonal changes and more pressure and scrutiny on their behavior and physical appearances," says Lavender Tan, a clinical psychologist.

Just under 50% of cases involved people aged 19 to 40, who are likely to have lost their jobs. Another 168 were over 40. Geographically, the largest number of suicides occurred in Selangor, the wealthiest and most populous state, which also has the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases.

There is also a gender dimension to suicides. Unemployed men unable to feed their families may feel that their masculinity is threatened. Kenny Lim, executive director of Befrienders KL, a Kuala Lumpur-based suicide prevention service, says that a feeling of helplessness and failure is common among male callers. Their deaths may also be under-recorded. "Men go for more violent forms of suicide, such as reckless driving, that may be reported as an accident," says Tan.

Global data show that men succeed in suicide more often than women because the methods they tend to use, such as hanging or jumping off buildings, tend to be more effectively lethal. Lim says that women are more likely to call Befrienders because they are more open to seeking help. They are also more likely to attempt suicide by cutting their wrists or overdosing on pills -- methods that sometimes enable rescue. "Most just want to talk to someone," adds Lim.

The desire to talk is widespread across Malaysia's multiracial population. Lim says that 46% of calls to Befrienders come from the Chinese community, Malaysia's second-largest ethnic group. But calls from Malays, the largest ethnic group, were rising even before the pandemic, and now account for 25% of contacts. The remainder comes from Indian Malaysians, the third-largest ethnic group, and others.

Many callers say they are thinking about suicide but feel guilty because they know that Islam forbids it. This is probably also why they call Befrienders, a secular helpline, rather than talking to religious leaders, who they see as are more likely to criticize them for feeling suicidal. A recent proposal by the Islamic Development Agency, a federal government body that promotes Islam, to place counselors in hospitals was met with derision even by Muslims.

The surge in suicides has heightened awareness of mental health issues in Malaysia, but more must be done to tackle this formerly taboo problem. There must be more suicide prevention helplines and trained personnel to staff them. Befrienders is open 24 hours a day, every day, but it is the only such round-the-clock service available.

Reaching out to young people needs to utilize their main avenues of communication, including social media. Lim says he has received emails from children as young as nine. Responses must be timely, especially at night, when suicidal thoughts are often at their most intense.

The law criminalizing attempted suicide must also be repealed in favor of treatment and care. To attempt suicide because you have no money and then to be fined for failing is ghoulishly ironic. Malaysia is one of only 25 countries worldwide, and one of only three member states of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that still criminalizes it. The others are Brunei and Myanmar. In all three countries, the relevant part of the penal code is Section 309, indicating a relic from British colonial rule.

There have been more than 6,000 deaths from COVID-19-related illnesses in Malaysia since the pandemic hit in 2020. But the fatality rate may be far higher when suicides caused by the pandemic-related mental health crisis are counted.

Given that it bears heavily on the most productive groups of the population -- the young -- the full impact of this loss may be spread over many years, making economic recovery more difficult and triggering further problems when children without parents or education, or who have been victims of abuse, grow up.

Without urgent action to slow the surge in suicides Malaysia's next generation may be lost in more ways than one.

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