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Friday, April 24, 2009

Translating Policy Into Practice

Translating Policy Into Practice

The media reports that the cabinet has decided that children of marriages where one spouse subsequently embraces Islam would remain in the faith that the parents had agreed on at the time of marriage. The cabinet has also appeared to decide that the civil courts are to dissolve such marriages.

These decisions are welcome ones. They indicate willingness on the part of the administration to deal with issues that have for some time now been studiously avoided, a state of affairs that had prompted the establishment of the coalition of NGOs calling itself “Article 11” and its “Equal Protection For All” campaign in 2006.

The decisions also indicate the policy position of the current administration, one that on its face appears to adhere to the constitutional guarantees of equality and the right of parents to choose the religion of their children. The Constitution guarantees the right of a parent to decide the religious instruction of a minor child. The Constitution provides that words in the singular are to be understood to include the plural, parent being “parents”. By virtue of this and the guarantee against discrimination on grounds of gender, it is clear that the intention was to vest guardianship rights in both parents. This is reinforced by federal law.

I am however uncertain as to how this policy position is to translate into practice as the cabinet has little or no direct power in this regard. Religion is a matter for the state and not the federal government; each state has exclusive authority over the administration of Islam within the boundaries of that state. This would include matters of conversion of children and the jurisdiction of the syariah courts, both of which are matters in respect of which the state legislative assembly has the competence to enact laws on.

Though the constitution itself lends support to the policy position of the cabinet, and as such could be invoked to reign in those state agencies involved in these matters, the question of whether there has been a transgressing of limits is one for the courts. The courts have however in recent years handed down decision after decision that have undermined the constitutional framework and entrenched as principle the very matters that the cabinet now wishes to address.

In 2004, the High Court in Shamala Sathiyaseelan ruled that the converting husband had a right to convert the children into Islam without the consent of the wife. The court also ruled that it had no jurisdiction to entertain the wife’s application to challenge the legitimacy of the conversion. Accepting that the wife was without recourse for not being able to move the syariah court as a non-muslim, the court counseled her to seek the assistance of the Majlis Agama. This is a scenario that the majority decision of the Federal Court in Lina Joy reinforced in 2007

In the same vein, a majority bench of the Federal Court in Subashini Rajasingam concluded in 2008 that either parent could convert a child of the marriage into Islam. It ignored the non-discrimination guarantee as well as the interpretation provision for words in the singular and focused on the word “parent”, interpreting it to mean “parent” in the singular. The majority also decided that the muslim party was free to commence proceedings in the syariah court even though the non-muslim party was entitled to seek dissolution and maintenance and custody orders in the High Court.

These decisions and others like them stand in the way of the cabinet implementing its policy position. It is ironic that the decisions noted above were largely the result of ill conceived and shortsighted positions taken by the Attorney General’s Chambers on these matters, positions that sought to denude the High Court of jurisdiction to allow for the preservation of an unjust status quo.

To move forward, the cabinet must therefore take the bull by the horns.

I assume that the cabinet made its decisions based on advice from the Attorney General. It is therefore imperative that the Attorney General articulates his revised position on these issues in the courts as soon as possible. The Shamala case comes before the Court of Appeal on Monday and he should apply to intervene to make the necessary points. Being matters of great constitutional significance that are clearly in the public interest, they warrant his involvement.

(Malay Mail; 24th April 2009)



Nik said...

All the best to you. Of what i know of you, I've great respect that you have great respect for what is right. ~ Nik V

LAT said...


Another controversial issue of great concern that need to be addressed is Section 95 of the Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce ) Act 1976, where maintenance of a child shall expire on the attainment by the child of the age of 18 yrs. This provision has caused hardship to many parent who have been granted by court of the order for custody,care & control but later on when the child reach 18 yrs, which is the inception of a very crucial age to persue higher/tertiary education, but then the maintenance parent stop & refuse to pay by the loophole of this provision and most of the custodian mothers suffer tremendously. Please help this group of women who have been sufferred in silence !