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KUALA LUMPUR, June 8 — Islamic affairs minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom was wrong to label unilateral conversions constitutional as he did not read the Federal Constitution in its entirety, the Malaysian Bar said today.
While conceding that Article 12(4) of the country’s supreme law uses the singular noun when stipulating that a parent is responsible over the religion of a child, the Bar said the provision should also be read together with Article 160 as well as the Eleventh Schedule.
These interpretation provisions in the Constitution, he said, states that all words in the singular also include the plural.
“Hence, the religion of children under the age of 18 is to be decided by both parents, where both parents are alive,” Bar president Steven Thiru said in a statement today.
In a parliamentary reply last month, Jamil Khir said that Article 12(4) dictates that only one parent needs to decide the religion of a child or minor, making unilateral conversions lawful.
Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution states that “for the purposes of Clause (3) the religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian.”
Steven also rubbished the Islamic affairs minister’s citing of the case of R Subashini, in which the Federal Court had ruled that the unilateral conversion of her children were lawful, pointing out that the court’s decision did not touch on the definitions within Article 12(4).
“There was no binding judicial pronouncement in that case on the meaning of the word “parent” in Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution,” Steven said.
Refuting the minister’s use of Article 3(1), which states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation”, he also pointed out that the article had not been read in its entirety as he failed to mention Article 3(4), which protects the rights of non-Muslims as well.
“In doing so, however, he appears to have ignored Article 3(4) of the Federal Constitution, which states: ‘Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution’,” Steven said.
In Subashini’s case, the Federal Court had ruled in 2007 that her husband — who had embraced Islam — had the right to convert their children to his faith without her consent.
Another such high-profile case came before the Federal Court last month, when Hindu mother M Indira Gandhi was allowed to challenge the validity of the unilateral conversion of her three children by her Muslim convert ex-husband Muhammad Riduan Abdullah.
The case is the culmination of the interfaith custody battle between Indira and Muhammad Riduan that began in 2009.
The Cabinet decided in 2009 to bar the unilateral conversion of children, but the proposed legal amendments to enforce this were later shelved following the intervention from the Conference of Rulers hours before they could be tabled in Parliament.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said this year his Cabinet is looking into ways to resolve interfaith child custody conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim parents, but needed time to seek the Rulers’ views.