Will changes to end unilateral conversions fizzle out?

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By P Ramasamy

The problem with the unilateral conversion of a child by a single parent might not be resolved after all. Despite the proposed bill to the parliament to make it mandatory to consider the views of both parents in the conversion of children to Islam, the retrogressive step by Perlis’s state assembly has complicated matters.

The proposed amendment to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act of 1976 is yet to be presented to parliament for debate and to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority for it to become a law.

While Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Azalina Othman Said is rather upbeat of the proposed bill to end unilateral conversions, the path to the adoption of the bill and for its implementation might take a long time. As it is, states like Perlis are moving backwards contrary to the spirit of the proposed federal amendment.

Perlis’s recently amended Administration of the Religion of Islam Enactment has already put a damper on the proposed federal bill to be presented to parliament. The Perlis amendment merely endorses the point of allowing one parent to convert a child to Islam.

The Perlis government’s new amendment could not have come at a worse time. It is not that the amendment was something coincidental. The whole country was well aware of the debates surrounding the matter of unilateral conversions and the effort on the part of the federal government to undertake the measure to propose an amendment to the Law Reform Act of 1976. Despite this, the Perlis government showed its arrogance in pushing forth the amendment.

It is well and good for Azalina to say that even if the states pass laws that are contrary to the federal laws, anything ultra vires to the Constitution would be struck down. Yes, Article 75 of the Constitution stipulates that if any state law is inconsistent with the federal law, the latter will take precedence. As it is there are only three states, Selangor, Penang and Terengganu that do not allow unilateral conversions. Other states in the country have already endorsed the provision for allowing unilateral conversions on the basis of the consent of a single parent.

As we are fully aware, some states including Perlis have deliberately misinterpreted words in the Constitution to meet their own political objectives. For instance, the word “parent” is used in plural and not in a singular sense. Furthermore, Article 5 says that “no person” shall be deprived of life or liberty, this applies not to one person but all persons. Also the Constitution states “words in the singular include the plural, and words in the plural include singular”.

It is clear that some states have literally interpreted the Constitution without taking into account the equal responsibility accorded to both parents or guardians in the issue of conversion to other faiths. The constitutional misinterpretation has been assisted by recent court decisions that allowed a single parent to convert their children as evidenced in the cases of Chong Ah Mee (1998), S Shamala(2000), R Subashini (2007), Indira Gandhi (2009) and S Deepa (2013).

I do not think it is true that everyone in Umno was caught by surprise by the recent amendment in the Perlis state assembly, as this was something pre-planned to appease some sections of Muslims who may not be happy with the proposed amendment to the Law Reform Act. It is highly doubtful that such an amendment could have passed without the approval of top Umno leaders.

The country as a whole seems to be moving in the direction of one step forward and two or three steps backwards. Perlis’s amendment merely strengthens the move in the direction of further unilateral conversions. For couples who have children and are experiencing marital problems, one parent is enough to move to states like Perlis to convert his or her children. It will become more an academic exercise to reverse such a conversion through the civil courts as seen in the cases of Indira Gandhi and S Deepa.

P Ramasamy is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang.

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