KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 — Adam* is like any other child in Malaysia, except the National Registration Department (NRD) wants him to ditch his father’s name and use “bin Abdullah”, a patronym that is virtually a badge of shame worn by illegitimate Muslim children.

Muslim parents Rahman* and Aisyah* married in Selangor and gave birth to Adam in the same state in 2004. Adam was issued a birth certificate and a MyKid that carried Rahman’s name with no questions asked by the NRD then.

Prepared to see their newborn child registered with “bin Abdullah” as he was born less than six months into their marriage, they were surprised and thought the department made an exception by accepting Rahman as the father’s name.

“So I didn’t question them and they also didn’t call (to ask for correction), so we thought it was OK; we also didn’t pay NRD to put Rahman’s name,” Aisyah said in a recent joint interview with Malay Mail and AskLegal.my, adding that the couple had merely accepted the birth registration as it was then.

While the NRD understandably uses the term “illegitimate” for children born to unmarried couples, a Home Ministry parliamentary reply last year showed that the term is also applied to children born within six months of their Muslim parents’ marriage date or for children born to couples who married abroad and did not subsequently register their marriages locally.

The NRD allegedly has the practice of insisting on “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah” as the patronym for male and female Muslim children respectively if it determines them to be illegitimate.

The couple received a rude shock in late 2016 when Adam turned 12 and applied to have an identity card or MyKad.

Hours later after the application process that Rahman described as “usual”, an NRD officer called to inform him that Adam’s MyKad could not bear Rahman’s name, simply due to the phrase “Permohonan Seksyen 13” (Section 13 application) in the child’s birth certificate.

“So he rejected, he said because the status is Permohonan Seksyen 13, I don’t understand Section 13… I can’t believe it, I can’t accept it,” Rahman said, referring to Section 13 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act (BDRA).

This was despite the section only stating that the father of an illegitimate child is not required to provide information on the child’s birth, and that no one’s name is to be entered by the Registrar in the register as the father of the child unless it is at the joint request of the mother and the person who acknowledges himself as the father.

Section 13 does not specify the rules for Muslim illegitimate children or bar the use of their fathers’ names, and does not mention the need to use “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah” in place of their fathers’ names.

Rahman said that he then went to the NRD office to cancel the IC application as instructed, but confirmed that the NRD did not provide further advice on how to correctly apply for Adam’s MyKad. It has been over a year since and Adam does not have the document yet.

Seen here is Adam’s birth certificate which carries the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘Permohonan Seksyen 13’ that the NRD says disallows him from having an IC with his father’s name. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Seen here is Adam’s birth certificate which carries the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘Permohonan Seksyen 13’ that the NRD says disallows him from having an IC with his father’s name. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Bearing NRD’s error

Aisyah said it appears as if the family is being forced to bear the consequences of what she described as “cincai” or an indifferent work attitude by the NRD during Adam’s birth registration.

“So now he is already 12 years’ old, for 12 years he has been using his father’s name. So when it’s already 13 years, he will question us why have to ‘bin’ another name. For us, if from the beginning it’s ‘bin Abdullah’, we can accept… don’t after 13 years only you want ‘bin Abdullah’, my child is used to using the name ‘Rahman’,” she said of her only child.

She said they would have accepted this if it had been enforced on them upon Adam’s birth, but given that they did not, Aisyah said it would be too traumatic to force this on them now.

A sudden change to Adam’s name in official records from “bin Rahman” to “bin Abdullah” would be a giveaway of his illegitimate status, with Aisyah voicing fears that it could lead to situations such as suicide or running away from home. While not all Muslim children bearing the name “Abdullah” as their patronym are illegitimate, it is often an indicator of such status especially when their father’s name is not Abdullah.

Both Rahman and Aisyah are trying their best to shield Adam from the knowledge that he is an illegitimate child and that this status stood in the way of him getting an IC, noting that Adam — now 14 — used to be a happy child who is now questioning the year-long delay.

“He did ask his friends, it was done in a short while for his friends, he asked me why it is not done yet, my reason is that there are some problems. But he is quiet only... I don’t know, maybe he thinks about it… He is always moody, if I ask what is the problem, he doesn’t say,” Rahman said.

Because of the uncertainty over what will be Adam’s official name, Aisyah said they could not open a bank account for him, while Rahman said he was forced to produce Adam’s MyKid that should have been replaced with a MyKad at the age of 12 during visits to clinics.

So far, the secondary school Adam attends and his teachers have not pressed the parents for his MyKad but Rahman is worried this will change going into Form Two this year.  Adam would also need the IC next year for his Form Three Assessment (PT3).

Seen here are Adam’s birth certificate and MyKid that were both issued by the NRD with Rahman’s name. Details have been blurred to protect the child. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Seen here are Adam’s birth certificate and MyKid that were both issued by the NRD with Rahman’s name. Details have been blurred to protect the child. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Efforts to solve

Rahman said he has tried various options including seeking legal aid, only to be told that such free legal services were not available for lawsuits against the government.

The Births and Deaths Registration Act does not state that illegitimate children born to Muslim parents must use “Abdullah” — one of the 99 names of Allah — as a patronym.

Immediately after NRD’s rejection, the couple had pored through the 99 names to see if any closely resembled the father's name and could be used as an alternative to “Abdullah”, but could find none.

They have not filed an appeal letter or engaged further with the NRD on this issue, and are still seeking advice on how best to proceed to secure an IC for Adam that maintains Rahman’s name.

How big is this problem potentially?

In a written parliamentary reply during the July-August 2017 meeting, the Home Ministry had said that the National Registration Department’s statistics showed that the birth of 542,363 illegitimate children in Malaysia were registered during the 2006 to June 30, 2017 period.

But not all these children are born to Muslim couples or born out of wedlock. The breakdown of the NRD statistics according to the parents’ religion were not given.

According to Sisters in Islam’s (SIS) statistics, its free legal advisory service Telenisa encountered growing trend involving illegitimate children over the 2014-2016 period: 5.8 per cent or 27 out of 474 cases in 2014, 7 per cent or 28 out of 397 cases in 2015, 11.4 per cent or 48 out of 419 cases in 2016.

SIS said it handled about 10 cases involving the ‘bin Abdullah’ issue for 2017.

Nik Shazarina Bakti, a legal officer at SIS handling Rahman and Aisyah’s case, said that a Muslim mother in a previous case became so frustrated that she wanted to renounce Islam as she felt that she was hampered from taking responsibility for her child as compared to non-Muslims.

Another case involved a Muslim couple who registered their marriage in Thailand, but their eldest child still ended up with the “bin Abdullah” patronym as his calculated date of birth from the subsequent marriage registration in Malaysia fell short of the required six months.

Denied the father’s name because of the technicality in dates, the eldest child has been asking the parents why the younger siblings have different names, Nik Shazarina said.

“We hear of many cases where people abandon babies because of this (bin Abdullah), because it stigmatises. The father wants to take responsibility over this child, how can we don’t allow?” she said, contrasting Rahman’s cases with other cases where fathers disappear and mothers single-handedly raise their illegitimately born children.

Where does the law stand now?

Rahman and Aisyah’s problems stem from the NRD’s policy to register illegitimate Muslim children with “Abdullah” in place of their fathers’ names, with the Court of Appeal pinpointing the NRD’s decision as being based on two fatwa or religious opinion by a national-level body (National Fatwa Committee) in 1981 and 2003.

The Court of Appeal had in May 2017 said that Section 13 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act (BDRA) allows the father of an illegitimate child to be registered with the mother’s consent, and that Section 13A(2) of the same law allows the illegitimate child’s surname to be that of the person who is registered as the father if requested by the latter.

In the case of a Johor Muslim couple and their child, the judges noted that the BDRA does not distinguish between a Muslim and non-Muslim child and that Section 13A does not say that illegitimate Muslim children are to be treated differently for surname registrations.

“Specifically, Section 13A(2) does not say that in the case of a Muslim child, his surname must be ‘Abdullah’,” the judges said, believing that Islam does not condone the “public humiliation of an innocent child” by announcing to the whole world the child’s illegitimate status through the “bin Abdullah” tag.

The Court of Appeal also said that a fatwa is not law and cannot be the basis for the NRD director-general’s decision on surnames for illegitimate children, unanimously ruling that the decision to use “bin Abdullah” and the “Permohonan Seksyen 13” phrase was unauthorised by law.

But the NRD has since appealed and obtained a stay against this decision pending its appeal at the Federal Court. The appeal will now come up for hearing at the Federal Court on February 7 where three legal questions will be deliberated on.

* Names have been changed in this story to protect the child and for privacy purposes.