On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Eyes riveted on custody tussle

Rightly or wrongly, many Malaysians are asking if the ‘conversion’ option is just a way for a new Muslim convert to gain custody of the children.

THE legal tussle involving a Muslim-convert father and the Hindu mother with both getting custody orders from two different courts has caught the attention of the nation. How the issue is resolved will have far-reaching implications for Malaysia.

The father, Izwan Abdullah or N.Viran before his conversion to Islam, had obtained a Syariah Court order to keep his son. The mother S. Deepa, on the other hand, has an order from the Civil Court overriding that order.

Here’s the catch – the Federal Constitution clearly states that both the Civil and Syariah courts have equal but separate powers.

Most Malaysians like to think that the civil court is the higher authority, but it is not as straightforward as that. On Islamic religious matters, it is the Syariah court that holds court. However, it is when the issues are not so clear-cut that problems will arise as to either court’s jurisdiction.

But how are the orders to be executed? This is where the police come in, and under the Police Act, our police officers are duty bound to execute orders issued by any “competent authority” and in this case, both courts fit into that interpretation. That has naturally put our police in a spot. More so, in this case, where it involves a father and mother of different faiths, with the child caught in the middle.

But let’s use some common sense here. Beyond the legal technicalities, this is an issue where all fair-minded and rational Malaysians want to see a solution tempered by justice and fair play, with doses of compassion thrown in. Our hearts and conscience need to resonate as one.

Izwan, or when he was Viran, entered into a civil marriage with Deepa. Conversion of one spouse into another religion, especially Islam, after such a civil marriage is not new. The issue surfaces now and then, which is why the Cabinet has made a decision that the religion of the children, when such a situation arises, must be the “common religion at the time of marriage”.

Are we now telling Malaysians that this has changed? Well, we would like to know how that happened and when it happened.

Let the children grow up and decide for themselves what religion they wish to profess. All religions are good as they teach the correct values. There are more commonalities than differences.

Surely, in Malaysia, if we are as religiously convicted as we want the world to believe, then we wouldn’t have that many social ills gripping our beloved country, especially corruption. It’s a great Malaysian contradiction.

What many Malaysians, especially the non-Muslims, are worried about is that if a marriage is on the rocks, and parents fight to gain custody of the children, there is nothing to stop one partner from converting to Islam simply to have the upper hand.

In the civil courts, lengthy arguments will have to be submitted before the court can rule which party takes custody of the children. The child’s best interest must be reconciled with the parent’s ability and resources.

Rightly or wrongly, many Malaysians are asking if the “conversion” option is just a way for a new Muslim convert to gain custody of the children.

Who are we, regardless of our religion, to judge whether a person has truly converted? Is it simply based on the passion the person has for his or her new-found faith? Or is conversion reflected by the way the person dresses or where he works?

We will never know because in all religions, there will be the so-called adherents who proclaim the faith, but act quite in the opposite direction.

To put it bluntly, no one should use religion as a tool – whether in politics or personal matters – to forward a power agenda or to escape the responsibilities of marriage.

In the case of Deepa, she is placed at a disadvantage because while her ex-husband can challenge her in the civil court, she cannot do likewise in the Syariah Court because she is a non-Muslim.

It is not good for the police to wash their hands off this matter because reports and counter reports would be lodged if this issue is allowed to drag on.

Izwan has allegedly said that the son is safe in his care, and that he has informed the police about the situation. He has also sent out the message that he has the protection of the law because of his conversion.

That is beside the point. We are all equal before the law.

Malaysians want to see justice. Irrespective of whether it is the Syariah or Civil Court, this is the fundamental principle that we all cherish. We need to get this right, for the sake of Malaysia.