It was nice to see a mother reunited with her three children again after so much heartache and pain. The picture carried by FMT of Loh Siew Hong and her children having lunch together at a restaurant for the first time after three years was heart-warming.
Those of us who have children will be able to sympathise or feel, to some extent, this moment of coming together again. For any parent, their children are the most precious of gifts.
To be separated from your child – and knowing that even though they are near you can’t be with them – is probably the greatest agony in the world.
High Court judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah, in ordering the children’s immediate release on Feb 21, also released a mother from her agony.
This issue, therefore, is a human issue. It is about a mother being separated from her children. It is not about any religion and it should not be seen as a contest between religions. It is also about how effective or unbiased law enforcers are and how much respect people have for the courts.
The court, in granting Loh’s habeas corpus application seeking the release of her twin girls aged 14 and her son aged 10, noted that a High Court order of March 31, 2021 had given Loh sole custody, care and control of the three children.
“There was also an earlier interim ex-parte order dated Dec 20, 2019, granting sole custody, care and control of her children to the applicant.
“The court orders still stand and are still valid. The court orders are not to be treated with impunity in the face of contempt of court. By reason that the court orders still stand, I, therefore, allow the application of writ of habeas corpus,” Sequerah said.
According to Loh, she had been separated from her children for three years after seeking shelter following domestic abuse. She obtained a divorce from her husband Nagashwaran Muniandy last year and was granted full custody of the three children.
She claimed her children had been left in the care of preacher Nazirah Nanthakumari Abdullah and that they had been converted to Islam without her knowledge. The children were sent to the Welfare Department’s home pending the court decision on her writ of habeas corpus.
Among those who welcomed the court decision was the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) which had previously given shelter to Loh.
WCC executive director Loh Cheng Kooi was quoted in the media as saying it was unfortunate that Loh had to “go through so much delay and hassle to obtain what is rightfully hers, given that she had already been legally awarded full custody of her children”.
Which is true. If the court’s March 31, 2021 order, or the Dec 20, 2019 interim order, had been respected and the children handed over to the mother, there would have been no need for her to apply for a writ of habeas corpus or for the matter to become a religiously-tinted public issue.
Was it the failure of the police? Was it the failure of the Islamic religious authorities? Was it the failure of the home which had been taking care of the children? Or was it someone else’s or some other agency’s fault?
If the authorities can identify the source of this problem, they can prevent similar future incidents from causing further divisions among Malaysians.
People have been talking for some time now about a seeming reluctance on the part of the authorities to fully respect decisions of the court when these involve issues deemed to be “sensitive”, and particularly so when it involves conversion cases.
I agree with the call by the G25 group of former top civil servants – one of the sanest groups in the nation – to the attorney-general to make a public statement calling on everyone to uphold the Federal Constitution and obey decisions of the Federal Court and the High Court.
At the very least, the AG should remind the police to act without fear or favour and to implement decisions of the courts. By doing this, the authorities can prevent issues turning poisonous.
G25 also said, as the Federal Court had ruled in 2018 that both parents must consent to the conversion of a child to any religion, there should not be any more debate about the definition or interpretation of the law on unilateral conversion.
“This makes any conversion of children without the consent of both parents unconstitutional and invalid,” G25 said. “Invalid unilateral conversions of children must be revoked by the religious authority concerned.”
Child commissioner Noor Aziah Awal of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, or Suhakam, in welcoming the court’s decision, reminded the authorities that the separation of children from their parents violated the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
She appealed to all parties concerned to abide by the court’s decision and allow the children to remain with their mother.
The respected Islamic intellectual, Syed Farid Alatas, a sociology professor at the National University of Singapore, told FMT: “Unilateral conversion is not just wrong because it goes against the Federal Constitution, but it’s wrong by any universal standard of morality. It’s unethical because children are not in a position where they can make such decisions.”
He added that taking “children out of the religion that they were born into, without them having the age and the maturity to make decisions, is simply unethical”.
I agree, and so would, I think, right-thinking Malaysians.
Perlis Mufti Asri Zainul Abdiin said after the court’s decision that he was concerned Loh might reverse the unilateral conversion of her children.
I have noticed comments and video clips on social media that indicate some individuals and groups are seeing the issue as a contest between two religions. That’s dangerous.
It is not about this versus that religion; it is not about my religion being bigger than yours; it is not about saving the “honour” of this or that religion. And no one should turn it into such.
This is a case of a mother being separated from her children – pure and simple. It is a case about the rights of an individual and that of minor children – pure and simple. It is a case of upholding justice – pure and simple.
The court’s decision should not be seen as a victory for one religion and a loss for another, because it is not.
Which is why I applaud the reasoned call by Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia to all Malaysians to accept the “just and reasonable” solution to the plight of a mother seeking to be reunited with her children.
“Loh’s children returning to their mother does not close the door to them becoming Muslims when they are adults,” said GBM chairman Badlishah Sham Baharin. He added: “Muslim Malaysians should not buy into fearmongering that non-Muslims are out to reduce the number of Muslims.”
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.