Malaysia at the Mercy of the Divine Bureaucracy
A mother tries to get her children back
By: Dennis Ignatius
It’s becoming an all too familiar story: a desperate mother trying to regain custody of her children from the clutches of an overzealous, overbearing religious establishment. It’s no longer just about the illegal and unethical conversion of minors; it’s about the refusal of the religious establishment to respect the laws of the land.
The facts of the case are clear enough. In a 2018 landmark decision, Malaysia’s Federal Court – the highest court in the land – unanimously ruled that the consent of both parents is required for the conversion of minors. Religious authorities were served notice in no uncertain terms that they may NOT convert minors without the consent of both parents.
Specious arguments like those put forward by the Mufti of Perlis that the children (of Mrs. Loh Siew Hong, in this case) did not want to go with their mother or that state law permits unilateral conversion are entirely irrelevant. As a statement by G25, a group of influential Malays, pointed out, “conversion of children without the consent of both parents [is] unconstitutional and invalid. To allow this unlawful separation and conversion to continue is a travesty of justice and a violation of our Federal Constitution and the orders of the Courts.”
Despite the fact that the conversions are illegal, the religious establishment insists that it is final and cannot be reversed. Various groups are now suggesting that Loh should only be allowed to meet her children at venues which are deemed safe or that she can have her children back home periodically but under police supervision or the children be sent to a boarding school where their welfare and safety can be taken care of. But who are they to decide how or where a mother should bring up her children? The courts have given Loh full custody of her children; isn’t it up to her now how and where she wants to bring up her kids?
Predictably, the usual veiled warnings have followed. The Penang mufti warned that any attempt to reverse the conversions would “muddy the good ties that the Hindus have with Muslims in the country.” The Perlis mufti went further, referencing the 1950 race riots in Singapore over a similar case. It never seems to occur to them that it is their own illegal and bigoted actions that have muddied race relations.
They get away with such behavior because they know that they can count on the government to look the other way. They have been so successful in co-opting the machinery of government behind them that they have become untouchable. Notice, for example, how quickly the authorities moved to investigated Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy for criticizing the religious establishment but have made no move to investigate those who carried out the illegal conversions in the first place.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the nexus between the religious establishment and government agencies than the case of Indira Gandhi – another mother whose children vanished mysteriously after they were converted in 2009. Though the highest court in the land ruled in her favor, gave her full custody, and declared the conversion of her three children null and void, she still has not been reunited with them because the authorities have apparently not been able to locate them. Few have any doubts that the children are well hidden behind a wall of bureaucratic obstruction and obfuscation.
Indeed, the religious establishment has become so powerful that even the cabinet dare not stand up to them. Instead of demanding that all government and state agencies fully comply with the court order, the law minister, for example, blithely urged Loh to take up her case with the courts yet again. The opposition too walks on eggshells whenever the issue crops up. Whatever it is, the collective failure to stand up to the religious bureaucracy could quite conceivably put all non-Muslim children at the mercy of the religious establishment.
While the political and business elites bicker among themselves and sink deeper and deeper into corruption, scandal, and hypocrisy, the religious establishment amasses more and more power. Already, what the mullahs decide seems to matter more than the law of the land. We are now embarked upon a slippery slope but we are too distracted by all the other things going on to pay much heed.
Dennis Ignatius is a former top-ranking Malaysian diplomat and the author, most recently, of Paradise Lost: Mahathir & The End of Hope. A regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, he blogs at www.dennisignatius.com