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Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz said yesterday that the Bill to amend the Law Reform (Marriages and Divorce) Act 1976 will resolve the issue of unilateral child conversions.

He said the Bill would bring the issue in line with the Cabinet’s decision in April 2009 to require both parents’ consent for the conversion of a child under the age of 18.

It is good news that after seven long years, the government has finally decided to exercise political will by putting into real effect the April 2009 Cabinet decision to ban unilateral conversion of minors.

Unilateral conversion of minors is unfair and causes problems, cruelty and trauma. It also contravenes provision in the Federal Constitution. Datuk Nazri has in 2009 pointed out that it has even been used as a tool to obtain custody of children.

I wish to call on the government to ensure that the banning of unilateral conversion of minors is made totally clear and to that there should be no room for misinterpreting the federal constitution in future.

On June 17, 2014, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom said in a parliamentary reply that that consent from either one parent is enough for conversion of minors, under Article 12 (4) of the federal constitution.

Jamil ‘s argument was based on the decision in the Federal Court in the case of S Shamala, “the consent of just one parent was sufficient to convert the religion of the child because the words used in Article 12(4) (of the Federal Constitution) is parent or guardian, instead of parents or guardians, mean either the father or the mother or a guardian” , but the Bar Council pointed out that the Federal Court in the case of Shamala Sathiyaseelan v Dr Jeyaganesh C Mogarajah & Anor did not make any such decision.

The then Bar Council president Christopher Leong has in a statement on June 19, 2014 said:-

“On the contrary, the Federal Court had declined to address and make a decision on the issue of whether the unilateral conversion to Islam of the children in question was lawful and constitutional.

The case was dismissed by the Federal Court purely on the basis that S Shamala had absconded from the jurisdiction with the children and was therefore in contempt of court.”

Morever, why did Jamil provide such reply when he was aware that it has been pointed out by legal experts that Article 160 of the country’s supreme law that refers to the Eleventh Schedule states that “words in the singular include the plural” and “words importing the masculine gender include females”

It was obvious that Jamil was wrong in citing the Shamala case and in interpreting the Constitutional provision. When a Minister could give such an answer in parliament, there is a need for government to ensure that there will be no such “misinterpretation” in future.
Teresa Kok

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