Putrajaya withdraws Bill banning unilateral child conversions


Source: The Malay Mail Online

Infographic by MMO

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 7 ― The government has withdrawn a Bill from Parliament that would have prevented the religious conversion of children to Islam with the consent of just one parent after conservative Muslims protested against it.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman informed the withdrawal of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the Dewan Rakyat this morning.

In a statement issued later, Azalina said the government will table a new version of the Bill for first reading tomorrow, but with the removal of Article 88(A) that states that should a spouse convert to Islam, a child must remain in the religion of the parents during their marriage prior to the conversion unless both spouses agree to convert their child to Islam, subject to the child’s wishes upon turning 18.

She said the government was amending the Bill to prevent any conflict with the Federal Constitution and that the amendment was in line with the “stare decisis” doctrine, which obligates courts to look to precedent when making decisions, where the highest court’s decision on the interpretation of Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution is bound.

Article 12(4) states that the religion of a person below 18 years shall be decided by “his parent or guardian”. The Malaysian Bar has previously said that according to interpretation provisions in the Constitution, all words in the singular also include the plural.

“We hope all parties will take this matter positively to preserve the harmony between the races and faiths in our diverse community,” Azalina said.

“We hope for your support and that no party politicises this issue,” she added.

The deferment of the Bill from the last parliamentary meeting, which had been tabled for first reading last November, came amid protest from conservatives, including some of the country’s muftis who claimed that the amendments were against the Federal Constitution.

Many had anticipated the government to table the Bill for second reading in the current Dewan Rakyat sitting after it was already delayed in April.

Azalina in an interview with Malay daily Berita Harian had said the government made the decision to defer Bill after a meeting with Shariah and civil lawyers.

Custodial tussles in cases of unilateral child conversions have been a growing concern over the years and provide a high-profile glimpse of the concerns of Malaysia’s religious minorities over the perceived dominance of Islam in the country.

It also highlights the complications of Malaysia’s dual legal system, where Muslims are bound by both civil and Shariah laws, the latter of which do not apply to or recognise non-Muslims.

The nature of the controversy had prompted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself to pledge to resolve the problem, which resulted in the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2016.