A Bill that Does Not Fit


It may be that BN, particularly Umno, has decided to give up on winning the support of those who do not support it and instead concentrate on those who do. If so, we can expect the Government to play the religion and race cards more strongly from now on. In which case this bill could just be the harbinger of more exclusivist actions and policies. 

Kee Thuan Chye


The amendment to Clause 107(b) of the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 2013, tabled for passing this month, is going to be one helluva bill. Voting on it will see whether representatives of certain component parties within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will break from the party line and vote according to their own conscience.

The MCA, the MIC and Gerakan, avowedly looking after the interests of non-Muslims, have been critical of the bill. It will therefore be a real test of their integrity to vote against it. Abstaining from voting will not be enough. They must walk their talk.

From the layman’s point of view, the bill seems to be simply about granting either parent of a child below the age of 18 the right to convert the child to Islam. The front-page headline of the July 3 edition of theSun sums it up: ‘Mom or dad?’ And if one were to apply simple logic, the answer would be obvious. Since both parents gave life to the child and are responsible for its growth, why should it be that only one is enough to decide?

But the issue is not so simple. It never is when it comes to religion. And more than that, this current bill indicates an about-turn by the Cabinet.

In April 2009, the Cabinet had decided that children should remain in the religion of their parents at the time of the latter’s marriage if one of the parents decided to convert. It even declared that the Government would ban parents from secretly converting children.

The Cabinet also decided that outstanding issues in a marriage should be settled before conversion to prevent children from becoming the victims.

In fact, two months later, the Government then proceeded to table a bill on these matters, but it was delayed by the Conference of Rulers. Nazri Aziz, the then de facto law minister, even expressed disappointment over the delay. But after that, no effort was made to revive the bill.

It’s unfortunate that the 2009 bill didn’t get its day in Parliament. The stand it reflected appears to be an accommodating one that takes into consideration the feelings of non-Muslims. In today’s context, it would cohere with any intention the Government may have of actually bringing about “national reconciliation” instead of just talking about it.

But instead, the Government has now taken an opposite stand. Why?

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin defends it on the grounds that the Cabinet was guided by a Federal Court ruling on a previous case as well as the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

He did not elaborate, but the understanding is, he was referring to the Federal Court ruling of December 2007 in the R. Subashini case in which the court said Subashini’s husband, T. Saravanan, had the right to convert their four-year-old son to Islam without the knowledge of the mother.

It said that according to Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution, the consent of only one parent was sufficient in the conversion of a child. “The argument that both parents are vested with equal right to choose is misplaced,” it added.

This statement is now being disputed by several quarters.

The Bar Council says such conversion of children without the consent of both parents amounts to an “unauthorised alteration” of the Constitution that came about with a new Malay translation of Article 12(4) that saw print in 2002.

Article 12(4) states that “the religion of a person under the age of eighteen years shall be decided by his parent or guardian”. Bar Council president Christopher Leong points out that “parent”, although in singular form, refers to both parents as this was in accordance with the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution, which clarifies that “words in the singular include the plural, and words in the plural include the singular”.

Before 2002, the Malay translation of “parent” in Article 12(4) was “ibubapa” (father and mother) and therefore correct. But the new translation has it as “ibu atau bapa” (mother or father). As such, the Bar Council contends, the confusion caused by the translation cannot be grounds for amending an Act.

MIC Deputy President and Health Minister S. Subramaniam points to the same discrepancy in translation and holds it responsible for the current controversy.

However, he would not commit himself to saying that the MIC would vote against the bill. Instead, he said, “I don’t think it will reach that stage.”

This makes one wonder if the tabling of the bill might not just be a sandiwara to appease Muslim conservatives, and perhaps some Umno members as well in view of the upcoming Umno general assembly which promises to be a high-stakes event for leaders who will be standing for party elections.

Read more at: http://my.news.yahoo.com/blogs/bull-bashing/bill-does-not-fit-114656820.html