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Politicising personal morals

OF all the things to politicise out of Teoh Beng Hock‘s death, why touch his fiancée and his unborn child? This is what has happened, after it emerged that Soh Cher Wei was two months’ pregnant and wanted to register Teoh as her child’s father.

Wanita MCA then issued a public statement asking the National Registration Department (NRD) to make an exception in Soh’s case. Birth registration rules require both parents of a child born out of wedlock to be present in order for the father’s name to be included in the child’s registration. Obviously, it would be impossible for Teoh to be physically present. In any case, both their families knew of the couple’s intention to register their marriage on 17 July 2009, the day after he was found dead.

I find it hard to understand why Wanita MCA opted to make a public statement, when they could have negotiated behind the scenes. Was it to gain political mileage? Perhaps to wrest back public attention from the Justice for Beng Hock campaign launched by the Pakatan Rakyat?

Wanita MCA’s press statement resulted in a racial and moralistic backlash by an Utusan Malaysia columnist. Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee is by now infamous among non-Bahasa Malaysia-reading media consumers for his weekend columns lamenting the decline of Malay Malaysian power.

Teoh’s family has demanded an apology over the column Nasib Melayu di Bumi Melayu, where Ridhuan implied that Teoh was of low morals since he fathered a child out of wedlock. He wrote that other non-Muslim religions would not condone what Teoh and Soh did.

The writer also criticised the MCA for taking up the cause of “bastard children”, implying that it would affect Malay Malaysians as well, since, according to him, there were many Muslim girls who were co-habitating with their partners and having children out of wedlock. “How many more illegitimate children do we wish to legitimise?” he wrote.

Father’s presence

Personally, I think it makes sense that if an unmarried couple has a child, the man who fathered the child should be physically present with the mother in order to have his name recorded. What if a woman registered her baby’s birth alone and named Michael Jackson as the father? And on the singer’s passing, she attempts to claim some of his inheritance for her child? This is a simplistic illustration, but one that’s not too far from the truth if you keep up with celebrity gossip.

Requiring the father to be present is logical, too, from the perspective of individual choice and responsibility. It acknowledges the unwed couple’s desire to face up to the task of parenting.

But whether a baby is the child of a sex worker whose father is unknown, or whose mother was in a failed relationship, or the result of an adolescent mistake, I think that the rules on birth registration are morally neutral. The rules acknowledge that children out of wedlock happen, and it gives the option to parents to take responsibility or not.

So where does the Utusan columnist get off playing moral police on Teoh and Soh if the law in fact does recognise children born out of wedlock?


Soh
Additionally, it may be against Ridhuan’s religious belief to have babies before marriage, and on this score, we both have something in common. But it’s crossing the line to publicly vilify Teoh and Soh’s private lives based on standards the couple themselves did not subscribe to.

Personal vs public

Curious about Ridhuan’s statement in his column that many Malay Malaysian girls were also having premarital sex, I asked the Syariah Lawyers Association deputy president Musa Awang about this in the course of interviewing him for other stories.

We frequently read about abandoned babies or college students collapsing in toilets after giving birth by themselves. But that’s as far as the news goes. What happens after? Are the state Islamic enactments against zina put into effect against these young girls?

Musa said as far as he knew, legal action has rarely been pursued. “Someone would have to lodge a report with the religious department, either the college, or the girl’s friends, or whoever witnessed or knew about the birth. But usually no one does,” he said.

To save face, perhaps. This is food for thought. One thing it tells me is that legislating against personal “sins” like these is neither effective nor a deterrent. The girls involved have been, and probably still continue to be, punished by social stigma or the weight of personal guilt. And for that personal turmoil, regardless of one’s own moral and religious beliefs, one should feel compassion for them.

This brings me to a story about a close friend, whose shotgun wedding I attended recently. She was just under two months’ pregnant when she got married. Prior to the wedding, which was simply the registration of marriage at the NRD, I accompanied my friend who had been called by her church pastor for counselling.

She was despondent, knowing that church leaders did not condone premarital sex, but she was determined to marry and have her child nevertheless. She said, “I’m ready to quit church if everyone’s against me.”

Hands on a pregnant belly showing the shape of a heart
(Pic by Emily Cahal / sxc.hu)
But while disapproval and advice to repent was indeed expressed by the pastor, he also said, “No one is judging you. No one can judge you. No one will ask you to leave church. In fact, we want you to keep attending. What’s done is done, and it’s between you and God now.”

I still see my friend on Sundays at church, except on those days when morning sickness gets the better of her. Between the two of us, she knows I don’t agree with what has happened, but she also knows I am far more relieved that she has not opted to leave her faith community.

My friend’s situation was dealt with privately, and within her religious community. She was counselled by her pastor, a person with direct responsibility over her spiritual state. There was no need to drag it out into the open for others to judge.

I’ll leave you with that story to think about what our morals are based on: the law or compassion? And what penalties for personal sins are intended for: to save face for a religious institution, or to restore a person to genuine faith? And whether it is right to impose one community’s religious values on others who do not subscribe to the same faith. And that while every religion has its own way of dealing with transgressions, surely, differing personal morals should not be politicised.


Deborah Loh is glad that Moral Studies was not a subject when she was in school.

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12 Responses to “Politicising personal morals”

  1. kl_boy says:

    Very well written. I fully agree with the writer on this matter. This is a matter not for us to judge. What right did this Chinese-Muslim convert think he commands by condemning the mother and child in society? I have the urge to pray for some divine punishment to befall this man but I prefer to pray for divine forgiveness for him, instead. Anyway, I think he has been keeping quiet recently because of this.

  2. Eric says:

    Deborah,

    Should it not be “the [alleged] decline of Malay Malaysian power” instead of “the decline of Malay Malaysian power”, as this is purely subjective?

  3. Erica says:

    I really hope Dr Tee can repent.

  4. Farouq Omaro says:

    The criminalisation of pre-marital sex is what leads to many babies being abandoned. Many young couples fear societal backlash when they conceive out of wedlock. Thus the reason for many innocent newborns being dumped, leading to some babies being gored to death by cats and dogs. The best thing to do is to educate about sexual responsibility and to love and accept when a child is born out of wedlock!

  5. bdr utama says:

    Does religion exist for the sake of people, or people exist for the sake of religion?

  6. Calvin Leong says:

    I totally agree [that] what Dr Tee posted was totally out of line. Not only are they of different faiths, they are not public figures [who should be dragged out for] public prosecution. Above all, I think it is [in] very bad taste to [...] apply guilt to the living [after someone's death].

    Of all the moral issues we see in the news, you had to pick on an unrelated topic to sensationalise. And capitalise on their loss. That is truly low…

  7. roastpork says:

    Eh? Nasib Melayu di Bumi Melayu written by a Chinese Muslim convert? Boggling…

  8. Aris says:

    I would like to ask Ridhuan two questions 1. Has he not ever committed a sin/wrong (in his own eyes)? 2. Why punish an innocent child who is born by God’s will and is pure?

  9. Alan Tan says:

    Correct me if I am wrong. It says fathers name on the birth cert. By that, I assume the legal definition of father. DNA contributor, financial and emotional source of support, customary partner, husband, rapist, incest perpetuator.

    This issue about not putting his name in his child’s birth cert is just plain wrong. If you look at his child, the question that begs to be asked is…WHO is his [or her] father? We all know that. We are prepared to deny the child his [or her] father’s name because we can’t adhere to some stupid rule about a father being present?

    Next thing you know Ridhuan is going to condemn Teoh for being an overt and visible influence on Malay [Malaysians] for praying to idols, eating pork and who knows what else.

    You simply cannot force your will on others. PERIOD. Malaysia needs to learn that. It’s not anything we will now take lying down.

    It’s ok to be prejudiced. That’s how I know I don’t like narrow-minded Malay [Malaysians]. It’s how I know I don’t like burnt toast. Or the fact that I like raw steak.

    It’s NOT ok to discriminate on the basis of that prejudice.

    For an entity to do it (Ridhuan in his capacity as…. read his self-written credits from all those numerous local establishments), it borders on criminal subjugation. NO more. Nothing less that seeing MACC going after the ex-MB of Selangor will convince me that MACC is not totally corrupt.

    As for Ridhuan, he puts my MUSLIM friends to shame. Those who are my friends without judging me, although frequently we don’t see eye to eye. Those who validate me even if they don’t agree with me. I can tell the tree from its fruits. If it is true, Islam is for all. If there is truth in that, the Muslim will grant sanctuary to the oppressed. If the faithful heed the five pillars of Islam… then these Muslims… they are not.

  10. Wj says:

    Well writen message and I fully agree with the writer’s point. We are in no position to judge other’s behaviour. What has been done, let it be. Can anyone claim they have not done anything wrong? Furthermore, the two families, their parents have agreed. As an outsider, no matter who are you, religious leader, politician or whatever, please leave the matter alone, focus on finding out the cause of TBH’s death.

  11. S.S.Seelan says:

    As someone wrote somewhere, this guy Boh Tee will make an ulama squirm with embarassment. Like the other readers, I too pray for divine retribution for this insensitive guy. Is this the Islamic way to react during a moment of tragedy? In converting, did he leave his heart and soul behind?

  12. Karcy says:

    It has to be noted that Teoh’s family are orthodox Chinese, and in orthodox Chinese culture, a marriage involves acceptance of the bride as a daughter into the family. Looking at all the photographs of the family while united in mourning, it is clear that the family already accepts the fiance as a daughter, so even if there is no ceremony officiating it, from what I see, she is as good as married (in fact the family did a ceremony recently to give her a “married” status).

    There are many such families in Chinese culture that follow Chinese traditions of marriage even if they do not fit in with the Western one. For example, there are a small number of Chinese families that practise polygamy. The second or third wives are recognised as mistresses in regular terms, but in the family they are second or third wives.

    The issue seems to me a legal one, not a moral one, because Teoh’s family already accepts the fiance as their daughter.


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