Let not the first brick be laid: The Star columnist

General view of the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, city skyline from the observation deck of the KL Tower on May 24.
General view of the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, city skyline from the observation deck of the KL Tower on May 24. PHOTO: AFP

Those who argue that the Syariah law is only for Muslims may have missed this point - can anyone in Malaysia guarantee that crimes would only involve Muslim criminals and victims?

By Wong Chun Wai

The Star/Asia News Network

Three issues that have surfaced over the past week have terribly disturbed me and I am sure many Malaysians who are rational, reasonable and fair-minded feel the same way.

More than that, these actions are slowly eroding the Malaysia that we know.

Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom told Parliament that unilateral conversions are lawful and gua­ranteed under the Federal Constitution.

This writer does not know if Jamil understood what he was reading out, which was presumably prepared by an official, or if he had referred to the Cabinet papers or read up on the Federal Constitution.

There is a 2009 Cabinet directive on unilateral conversion and early this year, a five-member Cabinet committee on unilateral conversion also decided that no child can be converted to another religion without the consent of both parents.

The 2009 Cabinet directive also stipulated that children must follow the practised religion of the parents at the time of marriage in the event that one of them converts.

Surely Jamil must be aware of the committee because he is also a member.

Among the others in the panel are Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup.

The other members of the committee are Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz, de facto law minister Nancy Shukri, and Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam.

Jamil and his officials cannot read the Federal Constitution - specifically the provision for conversion - in isolation.

The argument of the singular meaning for "parent" does not hold water as the Interpretation Act 1948 & 1967 clearly indicates otherwise; the term "parent" in Article 12 (4) must necessarily mean both the father and mother.

To construe otherwise would mean depriving, for example, a mother of her rights as a parent to choose the religion of her infant under Article 12 (4), if the father alone decides. In simple English, the Interpretation Act stipulates "parent" to mean plural, not singular.

The Interpretation Acts of 1948 and 1967, which generally apply to all Acts of Parliament, state that words in the singular shall include the plural.

Therefore, the Constitution ought to be interpreted in like manner.

Jamil should also put himself in the shoes of other Malaysians, especially non-Muslims.

He may be in charge of Islamic Affairs but he is also a leader of all Malaysians.

I don't think Jamil will be a happy man if his spouse makes a decision without telling him, and we are not even talking about religious issues.

Lest we forget, the Federal Court has ruled that Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi is allowed to challenge the validity of the unilateral conversion of her three children by her Muslim-convert ex-husband Muhammad Riduan.

The ruling is the culmination of the interfaith custody battle between Indira and Muhammad Riduan that began in 2009.

They were married as Hindus and today, no one has been able to trace the whereabouts of Muhammad Riduan (formerly K. Pathmanathan), who had converted the couple's three children - then aged 12, 11 and 11 months - to Islam without their presence or Indira's knowledge, just six days before he obtained a custody order for all three in the Syariah Court on April 8, 2009.

Another big surprise last week was the Government's decision to allow PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to table a Private Member's Bill in the Dewan Rakyat to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965.

On Thursday, it was at the bottom of the day's agenda but it was prioritised by two Federal Ministers.

It came as a surprise because PAS has brought the Private Member's Bill four times since 1995, and has never succeeded.

On Thurday, Hadi got this first step.

We can be sure that Hadi will repeat his mantra that the Bill only seeks to empower the Syariah Courts and it only involves Muslims.

When tabling the Bill, he said it seeks to amend Section 2 of the Act to state that the Syariah Courts will have jurisdiction over Muslims, and in the case of offences on matters listed in Item 1 of the State List under the Ninth Schedule of Federal Laws.

He said it is also to include Section 2A, which states that in the conduct of criminal law under Section 2A, the Syariah Courts have the right to impose penalties allowed by Syariah laws related to offences listed in the said section, in addition to the death penalty.

What Hadi is pushing for is unacceptable.

We live in a plural society.

Those who argue that the Syariah law is only for Muslims may have missed this point - can anyone in Malaysia guarantee that crimes would only involve Muslim criminals and victims?

Many kinds of criminal acts affect non-Muslims, including rape.

If we follow what Hadi is preaching - we will have to find four male witnesses of repute to testify in a rape case.

Women witnesses are not accepted and we wonder where we are going to find four men of good reputation in relation to a rape case.

If non-Muslims already find that judges in civil courts are reluctant to adopt a firm stand on the civil rights of the aggrieved non-Muslim party, we wonder how the Syariah Courts can defend the interest of non-Muslims.

There cannot be a parallel criminal justice system with Muslims and non-Muslims subjected to two different laws.

This is not about Islam, as advocated by Hadi and PAS, but simple common sense. But of course, common sense is not that common in PAS but we hope there will be a sense of fair play from Umno, and not the agenda dictated by the likes of Jamil.

Sometimes we wonder if Jamil is really from Umno or PAS.

The third disappointment must be a speech made by Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaacob, the controversial Rural and Regional Development Minister, who is well known for his communal remarks.

Last week, he reminded his listeners that Malays must unite to prevent non-Muslims from becoming Prime Minister because the Federal Constitution is silent on the racial origin of the top boss.

First of all, I cannot imagine any non-Malay aspiring to be the PM because, accept it, realistically it is not going to happen in my lifetime.

It took 200 years in the United States for a black man to become president, even when the whites and blacks are mainly Christians and speak English.

But it is sad that in this age and time, Ismail is still looking inward and seeing things through his racist lens.

Surely, he must have applauded when a Muslim became the first mayor of London, and for that matter, the first mayor in a big Western city.

Even in Jakarta, the capital of the world's largest Muslim country, a Christian Chinese has been voted in as the city's governor.

The non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are aware of their position as a minority in Malaysia. Politicians like Ismail should stop using phrases like "they" and "us" in his speeches, because we are all Malaysians.

What he has said serves little purpose, except to hurt feelings unnecessarily.

A true mature Malaysian leader will talk about the strength of all Malaysians, regardless of their race and religion, coming together and not going separate ways.

As one lawyer put it aptly in his article, Malaysia is represented by at least 45% of the population who have faiths other than Islam.

The important question one needs to address is the line between maintaining social stability and securing individual rights of religious practice and freedom of religion.

He further added, "this needs to be re-evaluated - where the politicisation of the Muslim rights over the non-Muslim citizens and fear mongering has had considerable effect in defining the parameters of the fundamental rights afforded to the citizen by the Constitution."

Three months from now, Malaysia will celebrate its National Day. As we replay the old visual of Tunku Abdul Rahman raising his hand at Stadium Merdeka, let us not forget that the Alliance created Malaysia as a secular democracy.

Tunku would have been horrified at the thought of what Hadi and his PAS theolo­gians want to do with Malaysia.

He would have also reminded a few Umno leaders, who have no sense of history, that our Independence was made possible because of the unity of Umno, MCA and MIC, and that without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia.

So please think carefully of the hearts and minds of the rest of Malaysians who do not live in Kelantan and do not want to see Malaysia turned into an Islamic State.

Let not the first brick be laid.