KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — The government has at last tabled an amendment to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act which institutes legal safeguards against unilateral conversions of minors.
The Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) 2016 was tabled by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman for first reading at the Dewan Rakyat this morning, the highlight being the inclusion of a new Section 88A that explicitly states that "both parties" in a civil marriage must agree for the conversion of a minor into Islam.
Specifically addressing the "Religion of a Child" in civil marriages where one spouse has converted to Islam, the amendment also said that the child will remain in the religion of the parents at the time of marriage until the child is 18 years old, when he may choose his own religion.
"Where a party to a marriage has converted to Islam, the religion of any child of the marriage shall remain as the religion of the parties to the marriage prior to the conversion, except where both parties to the marriage agree to a conversion of the child to Islam, subject always to the wishes of the child where he or she has attained the age of eighteen years," the section reads.
The proposed amendment also said that if the parties to the marriage professed to different religions prior to one spouses conversion to Islam, "a child of the marriage shall be at liberty to remain in the religion of either one of the prior religions of the parties before the conversion to Islam."
The issue of unilateral conversions became controversial in recent years after several cases such as that of M Indira Gandhi and S Deepa, who both faced lengthy court battles to gain custody and also reverse the unilateral conversion of their children by their Muslim convert ex-husbands.
The amendment also states that if a person who has converted to Islam dies before the non-Muslim civil marriage is dissolved, the matrimonial assets shall be distributed by court "to interested parties."
The distribution will take into account contributions made by interested parties in money, property or works towards the acquisition of the matrimonial asset.
The proposed amendments shall also be used retrospectively for any cases still pending in courts under this Act.
The problems with unilateral child conversions persisted despite a Cabinet ruling prohibiting the practice, due to the lack of legal weight behind the decision.
Putrajaya had since then been pressed to codify its decision into law, as it has done today.