Decision on conversion raises questions

By Deborah Loh (The Nut Graph)

ON the surface, the cabinet's decision to stop unilateral conversions to Islam by one parent is a welcome resolution. But questions remain as to whether it can be effectively implemented.

One issue is whether a cabinet opinion is enforceable in a court of law when there are no legal provisions to support it.

Granted, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, who announced the decision today, said the Attorney-General would be tasked with reviewing and amending existing laws to that effect.

But it leaves hanging the status of children who have already been unilaterally converted and whose new identities as Muslims have been upheld by the syariah court.

Nazri, who is in charge of law and parliamentary affairs, said the cabinet's view was that if one spouse converts to Islam, the children will continue to follow the faith of the parents at the time of their marriage. The cabinet also decided that the civil courts were the right avenue to dissolve a marriage upon the conversion of one spouse to Islam.

Long time coming

It is striking that the cabinet would only come to this conclusion now after numerous cases of unilateral conversions and broken families have come to light over the years.

The sudden announcement follows renewed controversy over unilateral conversions by one spouse after the recent case of M Indira Gandhi and her three children. Yet, since 2007, women's groups such as the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), which comprises six non-governmental organisations, have been pressing for amendments to current laws to oblige the converting spouse to fulfil his or her responsibilities under civil law.

Indira Gandhi and her children, with the DAP's Lim Kit Siang and A Sivanesan at a press conference on 21 April

Women's rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah, the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), says amendments are needed for:

  • Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, Section 3, to ensure the converted spouse fulfils obligations under his or her civil marriage; and Section 51(1) to let either the converted or non-converting spouse seek divorce and incidental reliefs;
  • Islamic Family Law, to ensure that a converting spouse meets civil obligations upon conversion. This would entail providing documentary evidence from a civil court that the spouse's responsibilities to the civil marriage were fulfilled; and
  • Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution to recognise the rights of both parents to decide the religion of a minor. Currently, the article only states 'parent' and 'guardian' in the singular.

"Without these, the cabinet can express its decision but how is it to stand in court? The cabinet's decision cannot be applied in court without the necessary legal reforms," Maria told The Nut Graph in response to Nazri's announcement.

In fact, JAG has observed that the Attorney-General's Chambers itself has brought up the matter of amendments to the Law Reform Act as early as 2006.

Already, in 2004, the case of Shamala Sathiyaseelan, who failed to challenge her husband's unilateral conversion of their children to Islam, disconcerted many Malaysians.

Maria says the AG's Chambers has received the amendments proposed by women's groups for some time, but to date the matter has never been raised in Parliament.


In the meantime, foot-dragging over what is declared a sensitive matter, given the dual-legal system of syariah and civil laws in Malaysia, has spilled over into other areas. It has affected the right to redress for the non-Muslim spouse or family members in other areas besides the conversion of children.

Civil court judges in certain cases have tended to fall on the side of letting the syariah court decide, rather than the civil court, on matters like a person's religion at the time of death or conversion out of Islam.

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