On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

View delicate topics from all perspectives

We cannot pretend that issues like these do not happen and
take the easy way out by looking the other way. They won't go away as much as
some of us may want to sweep them under the carpet, preferring for them to
simply disappear into thin air.

In a plural society, there are mixed marriages and adoption
of a new faith is something we have to live with. The simple fact is that
Malaysians of different races and religions fall in love every day.

But is love alone sufficient to handle the legal, political
and social implications that may arise when two individuals of different faiths
come together?

The matter goes beyond the family when other institutions,
particularly religious bodies, come into the picture. A family concern
immediately turns into a controversy, and racial and religious overtones come
into play, as much as we want to avoid it.

Because religious laws are involved, many prefer to adopt a
cautious line. Now, even the civil courts seem to have shied away from such
cases, preferring to pass the buck back to the Syariah courts.

The situation soon becomes murky and any discussion on the
subject becomes even more complex because non-Muslims are advised not to touch
on such subjects, of which they have little knowledge. As a result, non-Muslims
find themselves shut out even if it affects them.

Take away the legal jargon and talk about the Federal
Constitution. This effectively sums up what is affecting ordinary Malaysians,
particularly young couples who want to get married or those in the midst of a

Recently, a controversy started following the death of Mount
Everest climber Sjn M. Moorthy when his widow and the Federal
Territory Religious Council got into a legal tussle when it was discovered that
he had converted to Islam.

On Dec 28, the High Court ruled that it would not disturb
the declaration that Moorthy was a Muslim because the latter was under the
purview of the Syariah Court
system. Moorthy was eventually buried according to Muslim rites.

Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the Minister in the Prime Minister's
Department, and several other ministers then said the Cabinet was of the view
that the civil court should not brush aside cases pertaining to the status of
converts by stating that it had no jurisdiction over them.

Last week, the Prime Minister made it clear that matters
concerning religious conversion needed to be spelt out plainly in the Federal
Constitution and other laws to prevent confusion among Malaysians.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it aptly, saying that
in whatever legal action that "we initiated, we must also ensure that justice
is served to all", adding that the right of Malaysians to follow the religion
of their choice must be respected.

He reminded Malaysians that "the country has both Muslims
and non-Muslims. We must respect each other's religions and practices. And we
must acknowledge that each religion has its own rights."

The situation in Malaysia,
however, becomes more complicated because every Malay is constitutionally
required to be a Muslim. Although a very small number of Malays have changed
their faith, they have met with great difficulties because there are laws
dealing with apostates.

There have been cases in the past where issues like this are
still not satisfactorily resolved. And there will be cases in the future when
similar questions will arise. It is to our interest that all areas of ambiguity
be dealt with swiftly and fairly.

The Prime Minister is right in saying that the laws must be
made clear. We should also know whether it's the civil or Syariah courts which
should be the forum to decide on these matters.

Cases like these involve civil rights, administrative
matters and religious obligations – unless we know where we stand, there would
be confusion.

Non-Muslims, in arguing their cases, must also bear in mind
that Muslims have their rights too. Non-Muslims should not just see issues from
their own perspective as that would be incorrect.

When non-Muslims talk about their rights, they should take
care not to step on to the sensitivities of Muslims. That is the mark of civil
society, which is for us to respect one another.

Malaysians should be mature enough to discuss these issues
affecting them openly without the emotions. It is good that the leadership has
been liberal in letting the media and public talk about it openly.

But even as we see these delicate issues from a legal angle,
let us not forget that they are about ordinary people like you and me. It can
happen to anyone of us living in Malaysia.

Sometimes, it is about a love between a man and a woman of
different faiths. It could be about a failed marriage and one partner now wants
to get on with his or her life. The nightmare for these people begins when
institutions and authorities come into their lives.

Suddenly, they find they have little say and the confusions
starts with lawyers, politicians, journalists and religious figures taking over
their lives. As Abdullah pointed out, let the laws be clear.

It is important that those in power make the right decisions
as level-headed Malaysians, of whatever faith, will back the leadership.

Moderate Malaysians will pray for our leadership to have
courage. The people must have their say in their affairs, not strangers in the
name of the law.