KUALA LUMPUR - A Malaysian Hindu mother has won a court battle to regain custody of her three Muslim children who had been in the care of religious authorities, but she is likely to face another battle to overturn the religious status of the minors, who were converted to Islam without her consent.
Madam Loh Siew Hong, a 34-year-old Hindu single mother, reunited with her children on Monday (Feb 21) after a three-year separation.
This was just over a week after her case came to national attention, once again bringing into focus the issue of unilateral conversion - where children are converted to Islam by religious authorities without the consent of both parents.
Despite a landmark ruling in 2018 by the Federal Court - Malaysia's highest court - stating that unilateral conversions were unconstitutional and that the consent of both parents was necessary, such unilateral practices are still seen in some states because state Islamic enactments were not amended following the ruling.
Madam Loh, a Buddhist by birth, became a practising Hindu after she married Nagahswaran Muniandy, who was a Hindu at the time of marriage.
Her children were unilaterally converted to Islam by Perlis Islamic authorities after getting consent from Nagahswaran, who converted to Islam in 2020. He is currently in jail for a narcotics offence.
Before their divorce last year, Nagahswaran had been arrested for domestic abuse. While out on bail in 2019, he took the children away when Madam Loh was in hospital nursing her injuries.
After finally locating her children - twin girls aged 14 and a son aged 10 - in Perlis and Penang, Madam Loh complained about a lack of access to her children despite having custody.
On Monday, the court in Kuala Lumpur granted her application of a writ seeking the immediate release of the children to her custody.
Her story bears some resemblance to that of Hindu kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi, who spent eight years in courts trying to nullify her former husband's unilateral conversion of her three children to Islam.
Although the landmark 2018 ruling was made in Madam Indira's case, she has yet to reunite with her youngest daughter, who was taken by her former husband in 2009, despite her having custody of all three children.
The police have yet to locate her former husband and youngest daughter, while the two eldest children have remained with their mother.
Under the country's dual-track legal system, Islamic law is under the purview of the 13 states.
However, syariah courts can rule only on moral and family matters pertaining to Muslims and not on matters concerning non-Muslim civilians, and unilateral conversions involving non-Muslim parents have raised doubts over the reach of the syariah courts.
Perlis, where Madam Loh's children were converted, was one of the states that allow unilateral conversion.
Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin said on Monday that he would defend the children's conversion by legal means.
Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Ahmad Marzuk Shaary also urged that state laws be "respected".
"On this matter, we respect the conditions decided by the states because the matter (Islamic and family law) is under state jurisdiction," he said on Monday.
Democratic Action Party's Klang MP Charles Santiago has urged the Attorney-General to break his silence and ensure that state laws are in line with the Federal Court order.
"Or we will continue to see more cases of unilateral conversions by husbands who do it out of spite," he said.