KUALA LUMPUR ― In January, the Federal Court delivered a landmark ruling overturning the unilateral conversion of Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi’s three children into Islam, igniting hope in many who faced the same predicament.
Three months later, the hope was rekindled after Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) victory in the 14th general election.
But the reality on the ground is more sobering.
Yet another non-Muslim parent took up a fight in court yesterday to nullify the conversion of his two children into Islam, which was done without his consent under allegedly dubious circumstances.
Shah Alam businessman Tan, 46, (not his real name), decided to amicably split with his wife of nine years in 2015 after two to three years of a tumultuous relationship.
The couple has two children ― a daughter and a son aged 10 and six years.
“She wanted to divorce for a very shocking reason. She got her calling from Allah to be a Muslim,” said the Terengganu-born Buddhist who sometimes lapsed into the East Coast Malay accent when speaking.
“I asked her: ‘Would it be any different if I were to convert as well? Would we stay married?’ She said ‘no’ So it was not about religion,” Tan, who had custody of their children initially, told Malay Mail.
The planned divorce quickly turned sour. Tan said his estranged wife started adding more terms into their divorce settlement, such as allowing the children to be converted into Islam.
He disagreed, and it was around this point he claimed she became more callous in her attempt to gain custody.
Malay Mail sighted a copy of the police report lodged by Tan’s wife dated February 2016, when she alleged Tan’s maid had molested the son.
Her allegation was refuted by the Shah Alam Social Welfare Office in a letter dated a month later. It then discharged the son back to Tan.
In a separate police report by Tan and a subsequent medical report sighted by Malay Mail dated December 2016, he complained his wife had physically attacked him repeatedly with a fork when he was fetching the children for his turn at custody.
She pleaded guilty over the assault in the Petaling Jaya Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday and was fined RM1,000.
Tan finally filed a divorce petition in the Shah Alam High Court in May 2016. By this time, she was a Muslim for almost half a year.
In April, the court granted sole guardianship, custody, care and control to the ex-wife, but scant explanation was given for the decision. The case is currently pending an appeal.
But it was only when she filed her affidavit for the divorce that Tan found out his children had been converted into Islam by the Federal Territories Registrar of Muslim Converts without his agreement.
Based on court documents sighted by Malay Mail, Tan argued in the Kuala Lumpur High Court yesterday that among others, the conversion was ultra vires since it was done by the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) when the children’s mother was a Selangor resident.
The Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993 states one of the conditions for unilateral conversion into Islam is the applicant must reside in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya or Labuan.
Tan alleged to Malay Mail his ex-wife was then, and is still, residing in Bukit Jelutong, Selangor, and had used a false address of an acquaintance for the purpose of the conversion.
Besides the Jawi director-general, Tan’s suit also named the registrar, the Education Ministry director-general, the government, and his ex-wife.
Malay Mail could not yet reach Tan’s ex-wife’s lawyers for comment.
Tan does not mind if his children decide to embrace Islam or any other religion when they turn 18, although he would prefer if they were brought up in their original faith.
“My stand to my kids always is they should be with the religion they were born with before they were unilaterally converted.”
But his main worry now is their education, insisting they grow up with a “nationalistic” and global point of view, rather than a parochial one.
He wants his daughter to continue her education in a vernacular Chinese school, although he said she has intimated her desire to go to an international school.
In the court document, Tan also expressed his concern his son, who would now start his primary education in a public school, would be placed in Islamic religious classes and take the subject in examinations.
He also suspects purported “hidden hands” behind his ex-wife’s decisions.
He named several Islamic bodies and missionary agencies, which Malay Mail could not publish since the veracity of his claim could not be confirmed.
The former Barisan Nasional government had proposed to ban such conversions by amending the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, but dropped the initiative following pressure from certain Islamic groups.
After the Indira ruling, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had pledged to consider reintroducing a legal amendment to ban unilateral child conversions to Islam, but nothing was tabled in the last Parliament meeting before his coalition’s defeat in the May 9 elections.
PKR’s then Alor Star MP Gooi Hsiao Leung had planned to submit a private member’s Bill seeking to ban unilateral child conversions, but he is now a Penang state assemblyman after he won the Bukit Tengah state seat.
Parliament is set to convene on Monday.
Pressure is mounting on Putrajaya to table a Bill to ban unilateral child conversions, especially after it was publicly criticised for its recent handling of a child marriage case involving a 11-year-old girl in Kelantan.
Women’s rights group Sisters in Islam said the judges in the Indira case ruled any conversion of non-Muslim children must get the consent of both parents, but the lack of progress on legislating the restriction means such cases may yet still repeat.
“Despite the landmark Indira Gandhi case, there has been little progress in addressing existing loopholes in unilateral conversion laws in Malaysia,” its communications officer Majidah Hashim told Malay Mail.
“We are concerned there may be cases that fall through the cracks and victims continue to be in limbo over redress mechanisms.”
Ipoh Barat MP M. Kulasegaran, who was Indira’s lawyer in the landmark case and is now Human Resources minister, had pledged to solve the matter in May, saying resolving the issue peacefully was part of the pact’s manifesto.
Speaking to Malay Mail, Indira concurred unilateral religious conversions will continue to be commonplace and more parents and children will get hurt in such cases.
“Marriage is between adults. It does not mean when the union breaks down, children have to suffer,” she said, suggesting any parents in her shoes to be strong.
“Keep on highlighting the case so that the public do not forget and pressure the government to amend the Act to include Section 88A,” she said, referring to the proposed provision to ban unilateral conversions.