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Conversion still a problem

eraser unsuccessfully tackling the 'Islam' sign in IC
Removing the “Islam” label on a MyKAD is not that easy

PETALING JAYA, 15 Dec 2009: Despite cabinet announcements about conversions to Islam and proposed legal amendments to allow a Muslim convert to divorce in the civil court, other scenarios arising from conversions are not being addressed.

As a result, numerous conversion cases are not being resolved and beg the question of how effective the state’s response has been to the complex issue of conversion to Islam in Malaysia.

For example, proposed amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 to allow a Muslim convert to end a civil law marriage in the civil court only addresses this one scenario.

Other scenarios have been occurring with no recourse for those affected, lawyer A Sivanesan told The Nut Graph.

A Sivanesan
Sivanesan, who is also a DAP assemblyperson in Perak, related some stories of people who have sought his help in the last two years.

bullet February 2008: A teenaged Indian Malaysian boy from Tapah was converted to Islam by school friends who took him to the religious department where he recited the syahada (proclamation of faith) and received a conversion certificate. He was subsequently given a MyKad which stated “Islam” as his religion.

His family only discovered his conversion two months later when a sister found his MyKad in a pocket. The boy, now 19, has resumed performing Hindu prayers and wants to leave Islam. But the family, whose father is a prominent businessperson, is not keen to pursue it in court for fear the publicity will damage their name and standing in the Indian Malaysian society.

“They fear that even the chances of marriage for the boy’s sisters will be affected,” Sivanesan said.

bullet Early 2008: An Indian Malaysian female student at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Kajang, was converted by university mates. Her father, a teacher, and mother, a homemaker, only learnt of her conversion in her final year of studies.

The family had wanted to seek legal recourse after her final year exams but the girl “disappeared” with friends for a few days. In the end, the family decided that it was best for her to leave the country. She now works in Singapore.

bullet September to October 2009: A 28-year-old Indian Malaysian Muslim woman by birth from Sitiawan, Perak, wants to be declared a Hindu in order to marry her Hindu fiancé. She says she never practised Islam and was raised a Hindu although she was born to Indian Muslim parents who did not practise Islam. She now wants her religious status in her MyKad changed.

bullet November 2009: A non-practising Indian Malaysian Muslim wife and Hindu husband in Klang are considering legal recourse to obtain a MyKad for their 12-year-old son which does not state “Islam” as his religion. The father is a factory worker and the mother works in a textile shop in Klang.

Children raised as non-Muslims have MyKads
stating “Islam” as their religion
(© jmhullot / Wiki Commons)
Sivanesan also has a 26-year-old niece, who converted to Islam to marry, who is now a single mother with two children after her Muslim husband from Bangladesh abandoned her four years ago. The niece has returned to Hinduism but her MyKad states that she is Muslim.

Sivanesan said these stories have not been made public out of fear that the publicity will be more damaging to those affected, than helpful.

He added that many who get caught in this quandary chose to keep quiet because of the difficulty in finding syariah lawyers to represent them.

Those who engage civil lawyers, or want to challenge the validity of conversions, become embroiled in the jurisdictional tussle between civil and syariah courts.

“Civil lawyers can’t represent such clients in the syariah court where only syariah-compliant lawyers may appear. There are few syariah lawyers who are sympathetic as most feel they would be going against Islam if they were to take up conversion cases,” Sivanesan said in an interview at his Brickfields office.

No more deed polls

The National Registration Department now pushes the matter of removing “Islam” from
MyKads to the courts (left silhouette © Michal Zacharzewski /,
right silhouette © Kriss Szkurlatowski /

Sivanesan said that until the late 1980s, people could use deed polls to apply to the National Registration Department to remove “Islam” from their identity cards. Now, the department pushes the matter to the courts.

However, in a rare recent case, a deed poll was successfully recognised by the Court of Appeal.

In its judgment in June 2009, the court allowed a person who was deemed a Muslim to challenge his or her status in the civil High Court.

It was the case of storekeeper Zaina Abidin Hamid alias S Maniam, whose originating summons was struck out by the High Court but reinstated by the Court of Appeals. He sought for himself and his children to be recognised as Hindus and by their Hindu names, stating that he had professed Hinduism all his life.

Maniam was born to Indian Malaysian parents who had identity cards which said they were Muslims. He said his parents followed the Hindu way of life and raised him as a Hindu. In 1973, he obtained a deed poll to adopt a new Hindu name. He also married a Hindu woman under civil marriage laws.

His case, however, received little media coverage.

Courts decide

K Shanmuga
Lawyer K Shanmuga said he noticed a shift in government policy that has affected the MyKad registration of illegitimate children after the Federal Court decision on Lina Joy in May 2007.

Previously, children born out of wedlock to a non-Muslim mother and a Muslim father were issued identity cards that did not state their religion as Islam. They were also allowed to change their Muslim names and their status as Muslims in their identity cards.

“At one time, this could be done without the need to go to the syariah court to decide the child’s religion.

“About 10 years ago, I had a case where the religious council agreed that children born to a non-Muslim mother and Muslim father had to follow the mother. Both Islamic and civil law say the ‘putative‘ father of an illegitimate child has no rights over that child.

“But now the government is insisting that the children have to go to the syariah court if they want to remove their classification as Muslim,” said Shanmuga, who is currently handling a number of such cases with clients who are now above 18 who want to change their MyKads.

Shifting ground

Shanmuga said “things started to change as far as the law was concerned” in the 1990s, with the minority decision in the Dalip Kaur v Pegawai Polis Daerah Bukit Mertajam judgment. In that case, the court ruled that apostasy from Islam required the deliberation of Islamic law scholars. Hence, the syariah court should have jurisdiction to hear such matters, the civil court decided then.

That minority decision influenced judgment for the Soon Singh v Perkim Kedah case in 1999, which in turn influenced the Lina Joy decision.

“These problems have been on-going. These people continue living their lives thinking there is no need to do anything until they run into problems when they want to get married, or have children,” Shanmuga said. favicon

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9 Responses to “Conversion still a problem”

  1. cj says:

    Has anyone noticed the marked silence by Muslim men when recent news broke over the proposals by the Attorney-General’s office to amend the Law Reform Act to give rights to the converting spouse to apply in the civil court for dissolution?

  2. Azizi Khan says:

    “Civil lawyers can’t represent such clients in the syariah court where only syariah-compliant lawyers may appear. There are few syariah lawyers who are sympathetic as most feel they would be going against Islam if they were to take up conversion cases,”

    This is the most important reason why religion is left out of policies. When religion goes first – who will then protect the innocent and disadvantaged? In cases like this, the common response from religious bodies would be “he/she should have known better” and they proceed to wash their hands. So where is the justice and fairness in syariah then?

    Personally this is why I am adamant that our existing Commonwealth laws are more than enough to deal with situations like this. Syariah laws are simply too biased. Biased to whom? The religious department is always biased towards serving God. When God is the priority, what are problems of mere men and women?

    Religious departments too more often than not consider themselves infallible as they are working for God, not country or you and I. So how exactly do we get justice? The answer to this is to make religious bodies accountable for their actions – from body snatching to converting minors. In fact, I say make them responsible if there is any form of collusion to protect certain parties *just because they happen to be Muslims*. Then we can see these parties servicing for justice. By making them accountable, we will see a more “professional” body of syariah regulators rather than a group of men claim to work for God and would rather not justify their actions to mere mortals. By making them accountable, they will think twice about things that are the norm for religious bodies – which are countless moral policing exercises and and what not.

    There is also a fundamental level of thinking needed here. A right of a citizen cannot be revoked even though he/she is part of a religious group. I cannot stress that enough. Malaysian courts often skirt around the issue and hand it back to the syariah court which automatically provides a syariah judgement. But if this violates a person’s right – is it valid? In cases of religious conversations while it might be hard for many Malaysian Muslims to swallow, forcing someone to be in a religion against their wish is, in my opinion, imprisoning them. This is also the reason why syariah courts should never be superior to te hexisting civil court system because the temptation to [rot] the system to “serve God” is too high.

    Which begs me to ask this question: Why would I ever want to relinquish my right as a citizen of Malaysia, just because I am a Muslim? My right is guaranteed by the constitution. So long as I am not committing a crime, I should be allowed to drink what I want, have whatever religion I want and marry whomever I want (within reason).

  3. Nicholas Aw says:

    Malaysia may be about the only country which practises “a one-way ticket” Islam. Even Indonesia, the most Muslim-populated country allows its citizens to convert freely and inter-marriages between Muslims and Christians are tolerated.

    I do not make assumptions about this as I have personally met Indonesian Muslims who married Malaysian non-Muslims. When asked, they told me that the process is simple. All they had to do was to return to Indonesia, fill in the necessary documents and affirm their new religion.

    It is indeed sad to read of cases highlighted in Deborah’s article. These so called “victims” remain in limbo. I wonder what kind of message Islam in Malaysia is conveying to the people both here and abroad?

    My Muslim friends tell me that Muslims practise tolerance, patience, understanding and compassion along with other positve virtues. On the contrary what is being portrayed by the Muslim authorities paint a different picture all together. More liberal Muslims are caught in a quandary because should they voice out they would be labelled as non-conformist. In fact many such Muslims follow “blindly” as they do not want to be classified by the Islamic authorities as going against God.

    Still, let us pray that God Almighty as a compassionate and loving God will guide the Muslim authorities to make right decisions and that they would realise that religion is a personal bonding between the individual and the Almighty and cannot be forced down the worshippers’ throats. We also pray that despite the often biased policies carried out by the authorties, all Malaysians irrespective of race or creed will live in peace.

  4. tangsan says:

    Why can’t this issue be resolved? If there is fairness and our politicians, especially in the ruling parties, are willing to put aside sectoral political interests, this matter would have been resolved long ago!


  5. Farouq Omaro says:

    Apart from Indian [Malaysians], this problem also affects many Kadazandusuns and Muruts in Sabah. Prior to 1999, this was not a problem as religion was not included in the identity card. Now, it is a major problem that has received little attention from Kadazandusun-Murut leaders.

    Scenario 1: The individual is born of Kadazandusun parents who converted to Islam during the Usno/Berjaya era, but [the individual] now chooses to convert back to Christianity.

    Scenario 2: A child is born out of marriage between a Muslim and a Christian according to native customs.

    Scenario 3: A Muslim converts to Christianity and marries a Christian according to native customs.

    Sadly not a single politician has voiced this problem. This is seriously growing, especially in districts like Keningau, Kota Marudu and Ranau, where large-scale Islamicisation was carried out between 1973 and 1985. There are now many people who are officially Muslims, but Christians in practice! Where is the spirit of the Malaysia agreement?

  6. JayCKat says:

    This is Malaysia for you!!

  7. SM says:

    This is 1Malaysia for you! Or should I use the well-worn slogan…Malaysia Boleh?!

  8. Harry says:

    In this world, no one wants to be converted, not unless there is [a] choice. Religion is a subjective matter. There is no right or wrong to it. Conversion is a subjective matter. It can be more complicated [in] life. After all, if one wants to be spiritual, why bother whether it is right or wrong. In the eyes of God, everything is right for God loves us. So just ignore the negative, and be with the positive only. Even Jesus Christ said, ‘Love your enemy.’

  9. Philip Selvaraj says:

    Those who convert to Islam should reap what they have sown. In Islam your testimony is binding even until death. When you declare the syahada, you’re witnessing to Allah as the only God and Muhammad His prophet. There’s no turning back from this, heaven has heard it, if you are Christian, Jesus has heard it. Even Jesus has said, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 19:28.

    Editor’s note: Certainly, conversions to/out of Islam are restricted by several laws in Malaysia, but this is not the case across the Muslim world or throughout Islamic history. For more information, refer to:

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

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