Holding human rights to ransom

DECEMBER 11 — As I turned one year older on Human Rights Day yesterday, I contemplated the human rights situation in this country.

Malaysia was cited for “grave violations” of the rights and treatment of the non-religious in the annual Freedom of Thought Report by International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) — a worldwide umbrella of humanist, atheist, secular and similar organisations .

With a score of 4.5 out of the worst score of 5, Malaysia joins Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Brunei as the worst offenders in the region — especially with the existence of Shariah laws that heavily punish apostasy, even with death, although the penalty cannot be enforced yet.

In the category of “family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals”, IHEU noted that there exists “systemic religious privilege results in significant social discrimination” and “religious control over family law or legislation on moral matters.”

An example of the instance where religious control and privilege benefit Muslims disproportionately is when it comes to divorce and unilateral conversion of a child; when one parent decides to convert into Islam when he/she has already entered into a civil marriage.

Perlis shocked the country this week when it was reported that the state legislative assembly passed the Islamic Religion Administration Enactment (Amendment) 2016 Bill, making it sufficient for just one parent to convert his/her child into Islam without the consent of the other parent.

After all, Putrajaya had just last month tabled the amendment to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (LRA) that would ban unilateral conversions, an issue that has brought heartache after heartache and contributed towards the widening rift between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country.

Even Perlis mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, somebody you would expect to be on top of things when it comes to Islam in his state, admitted he was caught by surprise.

Currently abroad, Asri pointed to a fatwa passed in his state in April, denoting that when a parent converts into Islam, he is obliged and entitled to introduce Islam to the children. But it did not mention converting said child.

Amid flak from Barisan Nasional components MCA and MIC, Umno mentri besar Azlan Man claimed that the enactment was distorted by English daily The Star that front paged the news on Friday.

In a report by state news agency Bernama, Azlan claimed the move was simply to streamline the meaning in the Malay version of the enactment with the translation in English. He said whereas the English version says a “parent” or guardian can allow a child to convert, the Malay version says the permission of “ayah dan ibu” (or father and mother) is needed.

The enactment in Malay now reads “ayah atau ibu” — only the permission of either father or mother is needed for the conversion of a child.

All his scapegoating of the media aside, Azlan and Perlis lawmakers should know better. Lawyers have incessantly argued that the Federal Constitution’s Eleventh Schedule already defines that “words in the singular include the plural, and words in the plural include the singular.” Hence, the “parent” word actually means both parents.

But the point is this enactment should not have gone through in the first place, not when Putrajaya itself has tabled the LRA proposal.

It is not as if Perlis assemblymen were unaware of this. The New Straits Times reported that PKR’s sole rep Chan Ming Kai had told the assembly during debate that “the state government appears to be heading backwards” with the amendment, and they should have at least waited until the LRA is passed.

MCA’s sole rep Khaw Hock Kong had simply left the assembly during the debate.

In the end, 13 out of 15 assemblymen seconded the amendment — all 12 Umno lawmakers, and the sole PAS man. Another success for the Umno-PAS informal coalition.

Ignoring Perlis, LRA must go on, especially when non-Muslims are being faced with the explicit threat by Islamist party PAS that Muslims may seek to derail the amendment if non-Muslims continue to oppose its president’s private member’s Bill to upgrade Shariah courts — an attempt that would allow several hudud punishments to be enacted.

“We must play the fair game, don’t disturb the rights of Muslims, and Muslims will not trouble the non-Muslims,” PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan warned late last month.

All of us should not cower in fear in the face of this blatant threat. There is no quid pro quo when it comes to laws that only Parliament can pass.

Having Hadi’s Bill passed is not a “right” for Muslims, no matter what the Islamist lobby claims. Being Islamic does not give a proposal a free pass, and it must go through the same secular route all proposals go through, especially when it has immense consequence that would lead to continued unfair treatment between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In a similar vein, the passing of LRA itself is not a “right.” But passing it surely would guarantee the rights to freedom of religion that has been denied to children when one of their parents convert into Islam.

In a just Malaysia, all children would be allowed to pick their own religion when they reach the age of consent, and parents would be able to enter a civil marriage even when they are of different religions. Similarly, Muslims would also have the choice whether to enter a Shariah marriage governed by the Shariah courts, or a civil one vice versa.

While we contemplate this future, Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi’s case has stretched on for seven years now. Her Muslim convert husband is still a fugitive in the country after snatching her daughter, with the police seemingly powerless to find him despite an arrest warrant being issued.

Do not let our fellow citizens continue to live in heartache. MPs from both sides of the divide must pledge their strongest support for LRA to pass. Let us end unilateral conversion of children, once and for all.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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