Suicide and Social Media in Brunei
Suicide attempts or cases of suicide itself can become a subject of much talk in Brunei. Discussions of it stirs up coffee break talks with assumptions on the cause of death or the decision to pursue suicide. Death is a curious thing, I admit, and when things like these happen to people I don’t know, I tend to ignore it because it doesn’t pertain me. My ignorance is not because I’m heartless, but because entering other people’s personal territory seems invasive. However, with rising use of technology and Bruneians’ dependence on Facebook and the easy-to-use Whatsapp messenger as a strong platform for communication, it’s hard to avoid these things even if you request people to not send you these information.
I’ve gotten myself in a lot of heated arguments about privacy relating to deaths in the past few years with people seeing me as a killjoy or someone who believe herself to be a moral police. I don’t see myself as these at all. I feel like there are certain deaths that warrant attention, while others are better left behind the veil of privacy.
Recently, when a dozen Bruneian military personnels lost their lives in a helicopter crash, I see this as something that rightly warrants media attention. This is partly because our armed forces are not given as much attention as we see in countries like the United Kingdom or the United States. We don’t have murals etched with names of those who lost their lives fighting World War II (none that I know of). We have one day in a year to celebrate our Armed Forces, and this deprivation of attention to those who are willing to put their lives on the front line of national security is not something that is alarming. We don’t openly say “thank you” to our military forces. This is partly because Brunei has been living in guaranteed peace for so long, we might see military as something that is not wholly relevant in our stabilised country.
What’s important — and surprising to me — is that during the helicopter there was a lack of circulation of gory photos of the incident. The whole country mourned for the lost of young lives as we entered Remadhan. The shift in no one posting photos of reportedly mutilated bodies could be because there were no photos to begin with.
Let’s compare this to two incidents pertaining suicide. Some two or three years ago, a teenage girl climbed on top of a building and threatened to jump off it. The girl was reported to have psychological problems with a stressful home life. News spread quickly on social media, and one pattern was seen amongst the netizens: what an idiot girl. The topic became one of jest to a group of people, some of whom believed that the girl was stupid for being incredibly dramatic. This is a troubling attitude to have, because people see teenagers and their actions as irrelevant, and the lack of compassion people have towards problems like depression.
Social media reflects people’s attitude towards problematic issues. People joked of how she needed to stop role playing as Mary Poppins. Photos were quickly circulated of a girl on top of a building which went on for several hours, causing traffic jams around the area of the incident. Facebook friends of mine created a new Facebook album with real time photos dedicating to the story, which in turn received colossal likes within a short time span. People laughed at the girl, others were curious as to what was happening. The laughter began at the knowledge that the girl was still alive (she didn’t jump in the end).
What if this was the other way around and she actually took the plunge? Well, in a recent case when a woman actually plunged, the attitude was different. Last week, a woman was found dead next to a multi-storey carpark. Although people were sympathetic — a massive opposite to the first case — the use of social media was still the same. Photos of her splattered head circulated around the internet sphere of Brunei. Whatsapp messages were sent to people with the photo of the dead body. I am fortunate enough to not have seen this and not participate in any discussions of it in my office, thankfully.
What’s relevant in this story is this: suicide attempts should not be made into a media field day, especially from citizen journalism (if that’s what you want to call it). Although our duty as citizens of a country is to be informed, it is also important that information should be able to draw a line with privacy. Brunei is moving rapidly in terms of social media. Internet access is getting easier with schools providing them to students for research purposes. However, the etiquette towards internet use is not catching up quick enough.
Brunei is a small country with a small population (roughly 400,000 people). It functions a lot like a small town in Western countries where people tend to know each other and every single story is forced into relevancy to your life. I think this is one of the reason why internet etiquette is the way it is in Brunei: the attitude we have on our daily life seeps onto the vast and fast moving information technology we have in our pockets. If this attitude continues on, it’s troubling to see whether there will ever be a shift towards having decency of others’ privacy.
One Communications professor (who is an American) used to tell my class how surprised she was that incidents like suicide becomes a front page news in Southeast Asian countries. In Western countries, this oversteps personal privacy, and therefore may result in lawsuit. This isn’t the case in Southeast Asian countries, nor in Brunei. I don’t know the reason as to why newspapers choose these stories to be on the front page, when stories revolving around corruption cases are often put on the seventh page or somewhere deeper in the paper.
I don’t actively seek gory photos of people’s head splattered on the pavement or photos of a teenage girl attempting suicide, but there are others who do and would happily put them up on Facebook. I’m not sure what their intention of doing this is other than hoping to get as much likes as they could, or perhaps not getting the red bubble on their Facebook notification brings back dark memories of being left alone as a child seeking for attention. Whatever the reasoning for people doing this is, it disturbs me.
People have argued that this is freedom of information with social media becoming an enabler to things we might not have access through from state media. However, freedom at the expense of my privacy is alarming, especially if I cannot control what transpires. I’m saying this as someone who imagines herself in the situation if I ever meet a violent death that captures a nation, for instance (God forbid!). I’m saying this as someone who does not want her face displayed and saved on everyone’s smartphone or become what is seen as “viral” on Brunei’s Facebook sphere.
So, whenever someone argues with me that I’m being a killjoy, I ask them if they want to be put in a situation where someone will either mock you for your actions or whether you want your bloodied face saved on someone you don’t know’s phone. I don’t, and I don’t want that to continue on if we want to be considered a civilised society