Our fear and denial of suicide: A crisis of society

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The Singapore society fears suicide and actively deny it. It would be a gross exaggeration to state that the suicide problem is an epidemic, but it would be fair to say that the actual number of suicides each year has been grossly understated due to the narrow manner in which suicide is recognised. Death would be recorded as a suicide only when the person who attempts to end his life is successful at the very first instance of the act. Any complications, i.e. a survival arising from the act, resulting in an eventual death in a medical institution would usually not be recognised as suicide and thus would not be recorded as such. In fact, it was reported in 2018 that there was a total of 361 suicides reported in 2017, a 15.8% drop from 2016 and the lowest since 2012 according to the Samaritans of Singapore. We lure our senses into a comfort zone, and we continue to remain silent on the many suicides in our midst.

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We medicalise suicide. In the recent debate on the decriminalisation of suicide, it was peppered with the language of medicine. “Treatment, rather than persecution” was how the debate was framed. It was a conversation between a health care problem and a criminal act.

“If an act is harmful, then the aim of criminalising it is to announce to society that these acts are not to be done and to ensure that fewer of them are done, for the common good.” – The Straits Times forum, 1 October 2018

“Given that there is such a strong negative social stigma on mental illness, decimalising suicide will send the message that mental illness is not a deviant state.” – Dr Paulin Straughan, 13 February 2019

In Singapore, suicide is, in fact, a stronger stigma vis-à-vis dying and death. Despite the many superstitions and aversions towards death, it is nevertheless recognised as an inevitable occurrence, and the individual does not have the agency to prevent the aging and dying process. However, suicide is frowned upon by society. It is an “irresponsible” and “rash” act. It goes against notions of citizenship and being a responsible member of society. It is a deviant act, deviant insofar as society arrogantly view themselves as normal and suicidal persons and the act of suicide as contrary to accepted societal norms which in this case, is often embedded within moralistic attitudes best exemplified by the notion of the “sanctity of life.” More fundamentally, suicide challenges order, modernity and hygiene and what these values fundamentally stands for: Progress. Suicide extinguishes hope and [the gift that is] life and is defeatist in nature. The person has lost control.

A conservative approach to suicide would no longer work. The recent decriminalisation of suicide is a positive step in the right direction. It begins the normalisation of the dialogue for an act often perceived by society as an “abnormal”. We need to next recognise that suicide is more than a [mental] health issue. It is a social problem as much as it is a personal and family crisis. It is a crisis of the heart and the society at large. Too often we see suicide as a mental health problem of the said individual. But in fact, to better discuss the suicide problem in Singapore, we need to also recognise that suicide is merely the manifestation and symptom of a society that is not at all well, not at all at ease with itself. People who commit suicide are neither playing God nor trying to be their own executioners. They are in fact victims of the very society that they live in, left behind by the progress that Singapore is so eager to claim as its enduring legacy.

Death is not merely the loss of life. It cuts straight into our being as a human. If our lives represent a mirror, the aftermath of our loved ones’ death can be best represented by a shattered mirror. Regardless of how you may be able to put back the pieces and move on, it [our lives] will never be complete and never be the same again. We live with a hurt, often articulated as “grief”. Words cannot describe the emotions, thoughts, love, regrets embedded within, but it is there. Insidiously, it’s here to stay. That’s what loss is. An insidious hurt, a wound invisible to the naked eye, but clear like day to our consciousness that all is not whole, ever again. Suicide is thus a fatal act to the Singapore polity and constitutes layers of multiple wounds on the nation-state. To deny it, to fear it, to remain silent only goes to illustrate our complacency and ignorance of the extent of this social problem.

There is a certain school of thought that when the act of suicide is acceptable under certain social, financial and emotional circumstances, the rate of suicide in society will increase. In other words, when the taboos surrounding suicide are loosened in the sense that suicide has been normalised, there will be deadly consequences not only for the individual, the family he leaves behind and the society-at-large. Such a view is myopic.

We need to stop pretending to be asleep when we are very much lying awake on our [comfortable] beds. We need to stop being tone-deaf to the problem before us. We need a national conversation about suicide in our schools, families, and workplaces. We need to dedicate more resources for more public education outreaches on the impact of suicide on the well-being of our families, communities, and nation. We need to ask for help and ask to help. The veil of fear and denial has to be lifted. Let a hundred flowers of death literacy bloom in Singapore.


When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around

Do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?

As we speak, another suicide has taken place

A deafening sound.

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