A Bill that Does Not Fit

By Kee Thuan Chye
Yahoo News
4th July 2013

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.

Besides, Muhyiddin’s defense of the bill is questionable on both counts. First, the Federal Court ruling was made in 2007, so if, as he says, the Cabinet is now guided by it, why did it come up with a contrary stand in 2009 that was accommodating of both parents? Second, the provisions of the Constitution that he mentions are predicated on a translation discrepancy. Surely, the Government is smart enough to spot that and realise that it cannot be used to support an amendment?

Reading between the lines of the discourse over the bill (Muhyiddin saying the Government will try and find “a fair solution”; Nazri Aziz saying that he still stands by the 2009 Cabinet decision and opining that the Constitution “must be read as inclusive, not exclusive, especially when it comes to religion”; and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom saying, “We will take a look at the bill as best we can and refer to all views.”), I suspect that the Government may not really want to push it through.

If it does, it will be seen to have been insincere in 2009. More significantly, it will further alienate non-Muslim citizens, who might look at this as retaliation by BN for its massive loss of non-Malay support at the recent general election.

It may be that BN, particularly Umno, has decided to give up on winning the favour 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.

Whatever the motive and whether the bill will be passed, the move to table it already says something about the Government. It neither intends to bring about “national reconciliation” nor change its style of governance. This being so, it will only succeed in making many Malaysians believe in it less.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, and the latest volume, Ask for No Bullshit, Get Some More!

  1. #1 by sotong on Thursday, 4 July 2013 - 5:47 pm

    The country cannot have two legal systems. It is damaging to social cohesion and nation building.

    There is nothing wrong with the Constitution.
    A strong judiciary of universal justice and values will deliver justice and fairness to everyone, Muslims and non Muslims alike.

    Decades of narrow and divisive Politics of religion and bad leadership had done enormous damage.

  2. #2 by bruno on Thursday, 4 July 2013 - 8:02 pm

    When it comes down to the ruling regime,nothing fits.Talk about the ringgit and you will the see the $ signs poping out like cukoobirds,from their popeyes.

  3. #3 by Loh on Thursday, 4 July 2013 - 11:51 pm

    ///Former senior judges appearing as lawyers in court will intimitate junior judges and cause other problems, warns Param Cumaraswamy.///—Malaysiakini

    By that argument, junior judges cannot be trusted to judge since their reasoning power is affected by the status of the person appearing before them. But that cannot be true. Param Cumarasamy must be talking nonsense.

  4. #4 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Friday, 5 July 2013 - 8:57 am

    A bill that does not fit?


    Make it fat. Yeah, really really fat.

    Like a billion or more.

    That sort of bill will surely fit-all in umno.

  5. #5 by Cinapek on Friday, 5 July 2013 - 9:21 am

    The Cabinet decision of 2009 that was a fair decision was made in the narrow interest of trying not to lose non muslim support in the coming GE13. There was no real sincerity .

    Now that GE13 is over, the Govt will try to push this Bill through as there is no immediate political risk and hope that over the long term the non muslims will accept it. The victory that is scored now can then be trumpeted in the future that UMNO is protecting Malay and muslim interest.

    Just as the NEP and the ISA, the Govt will deny any sinister intent now and make all kinds of promises when the Bill is tabled only to abuse it years later. Don’t be fooled again. Once bitten twice shy.

  6. #6 by good coolie on Saturday, 6 July 2013 - 12:20 am

    How can ex-judges go down to become lawyers,. It is like the great Mahatir becoming a goreng-pisang seller; or Superr Starr Rajni Kanth becoming a cinema-ticket clerk.

  7. #7 by on cheng on Saturday, 6 July 2013 - 11:13 am

    a retired judge at over 65, still want to work, snatching younger ppl rice bowl, pitiful !

  8. #8 by on cheng on Saturday, 6 July 2013 - 11:13 am

    why wasting time ? Just KIV til child become 18 years old let him/her decide ? what is wrong if an under 18 does not have a religion?

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