On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Stand up for what is fair and right

M.Indira Gandhi (left) posing with clerk S.Deepa. – Filepic

THE move by the Perlis state legislative assembly in allowing one parent to convert a child to Islam is totally at odds with what the Federal Government is finally doing.

It has disrupted the legal process of the Federal Government, and like it or not, this tiny state has set off a dangerous precedent.

Malaysians have argued, debated and decided on this contentious issue – and now Perlis has sent this controversy back to square one.

The issue of unilateral conversion became controversial in recent years after several cases like that of M. Indira Gandhi and S. Deepa, two women who faced lengthy court battles to gain custody and reverse the conversion of their children, carried out by their Muslim convert former husbands.

Understandably, Islam is a state matter but state legislation should be consistent with federal laws and the amended enactment by Perlis clearly contravenes the aims and spirit of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Bill 2016 which is intended to secure the constitutional rights of non-Muslims.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said had noted that the Federal Constitution ruled supreme above all state laws, even in cases of unilateral conversion of a child.

“Once the amendment (to the Law Reform Act) is passed, it becomes federal law and it should be noted that Article 75 of the Federal Constitution provides that when any state law is inconsistent with a federal law, the federal law shall prevail over the state law,” she said in a statement.

You don’t have to be a lawyer or legal expert to understand that Section 88A of this Federal Bill specifically states that “conversion to Islam can only be done with the approval of both parents”.

Azalina tabled the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Bill 2016 for first reading at the Dewan Rakyat last month, the highlight being the inclusion of a new section (Section 88A) that explicitly states that “both parties in a civil marriage” must agree to the conversion of a minor to Islam.

Specifically addressing the “Religion of a Child” in civil marriages where one spouse has converted to Islam, the amendment also said that the child will remain in the religion of the parents at the time of marriage until the child is 18 years old, when he may choose his own religion.

“Where a party to a marriage has converted to Islam, the religion of any child of the marriage shall remain as the religion of the parties to the marriage prior to the conversion, except where both parties to the marriage agree to a conversion of the child to Islam, subject always to the wishes of the child where he or she has attained the age of eighteen years,” the section reads.

The proposed amendment also states that if the parties to the marriage professed different religions prior to one spouse converting to Islam, “a child of the marriage shall be at liberty to remain in the religion of either one of the prior religions of the parties before the conversion to Islam.”

I hope the state assemblymen in Perlis, regardless of their faith, have taken time to ponder on what they have decided on. It is easy to just say sokong (support) in unison. But have they considered the consequences?

Is it too difficult to allow children, where one parent has converted to Islam, to hold on to their original faith until they can decide for themselves at age 18?

Reverse the situation – if a Muslim parent residing in a non-Muslim country decides to embrace Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, and then converts the child to another faith – what will the reaction be? Frankly, I do not think this should be admissible either.

The same rule should be adopted and taken from a compassionate and humanitarian stand. Worse, we should never allow religion to be used in the fight over child custody when a marriage breaks down. It’s simple, common sense. Let’s do what is humane and right.

In a nutshell: unilateral conversion should not be allowed for whatever religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism.

Should a parent convert to a religion which is different from that at the time of marriage, especially during the dissolution of marriage, the children should remain in the original faith until they turn 18.

Forcing the children to embrace any religion when one party decides to convert may show a lack of confidence in oneself in practising one’s faith or worse still, show a lack of faith in the attractiveness, beauty and truth in his or her religion.

It is more rational for parents to show their children the beauty of their faith, new or otherwise, and allow them to decide once they become adults.

There is nothing to stop a Hindu father or mother, who has become a Muslim, from bringing his or her child to study Islam or visit the mosque to share the beauty of Islam.

When the time comes, let the child decide for himself. The question is – what’s the hurry?

This is a country which is predominantly Muslim. Certainly, the presence of Islam is increasingly dominant and the religious authorities should not worry about numbers.

These wise men of Islam, in fact, should be aware that there are selfish men and women out there who use religion for their own motives when a marriage goes sour.

Why are we denying justice to the non-converting spouse?

The same principle applies to those of other faiths too, and we acknowledge that all religions believe in justice and compassion.

We should also remind ourselves that the Federal Constitution is a major piece of legislation aimed at balancing the needs of all races and religions that make up this multi-racial country.

If a single parent is to be allowed to convert a child it would only have the effect of ignoring constitutional provisions.

Take a breather, listen to our hearts of heart, do what is fair, just and right – not what is politically right or politically beneficial.