Malaysia rethinks controversial Islamic conversion bill

Outcry at bill allowing parent to convert child to religion without consent of partner

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 3:48am

Malaysia has backed down over controversial plans to allow a parent to convert their child to Islam without their partner's consent.

The legislation, tabled in Parliament last week, drew widespread criticism from civil groups, the opposition and even members of the government.

Following the outcry, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said yesterday that the government would review the bill. "We will only retable the bill once we achieve a consensus," he said.

S. Barathidasan, secretary-general of the Malaysian Indians Progressive Association, welcomed the decision. "We hope the new bill will be one which reflects and fulfils the needs of all different groups in the country," he said. "It shows the government is beginning to listen to the people."

There were fears that the bill - if passed - would have had serious implications for children as well as couples in divorce cases involving child custody. If a parent converted to Islam, as well as his child, the non-Muslim parent would be denied custody.

"If a father converts a child to be a Muslim without consent of the mother, it clearly jeopardises and is prejudicial to her legal rights over the child in civil court … wherein the child is a Muslim, thus the affairs of the child are bound by sharia law," said lawyer Prakash Sampunathan.

"The mother who is not a Muslim will definitely be denied custody and control of her child," he said.

The mother who is not a Muslim will definitely be denied custody...of her child

In 2010, a Chinese woman, Fatimah Fong, converted to Islam and obtained an Islamic court order to take her daughter from her husband in a case that made headlines in Malaysia.

After snatching the girl from school, she converted the then seven-year-old to Islam the next day and was granted full custody under Islamic law.

Her estranged husband, Tan Cheow Hong, accused her of converting to Islam so she could gain custody of the child.

The bill, widely denounced as unconstitutional, had raised fears among ethnic and religious minorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia of more such cases.

Barathidasan said: "Conversion of children to Islam must be agreed by both parents or else the child remains with [his or her] original religion until after 18 years old.

"By allowing children to remain in their [original] religion until … they are mature would be wise, correct, justified and morally right, rather than converting their religion at an age [when] the children clearly don't have maturity on the issue, [which] is morally wrong and unjustified," he said.

Respected and popular Muslim cleric Asri Zainul Abidin said children should not be forcefully converted to Islam and should be allowed to decide their religious beliefs upon turning 15. "Leave the matter to the children. It's a free country," Asri was quoted as saying by The Malay Mail.

About 60 per cent of Malaysia's 29.6 million population are Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook. Under the constitution, all Malays are automatically Muslims and followers of other races, including Chinese and Indians, aren't allowed to leave the religion.

In a court case in 2007, Lina Joy lost an appeal to stop the government referring to her as a Muslim on her identity card so that she could marry her Catholic boyfriend.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg