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.
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?
SohAdditionally, 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.”
(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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