PETALING JAYA (July 9, 2013): As the government withdrew the controversial Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 relating to the conversion of minors yesterday, the Bar Council called on the government to streamline federal and state laws on the matter.

The point of contention with the bill is that it allows a parent to unilaterally convert minors to Islam without seeking consent from the spouse.

Bar Council president Christopher Leong urged state governments to follow the federal government’s policy on the conversion of minors to Islam by immediately amending their Islamic enactments on the matter.

He said another area where federal and state government law needed to be streamlined was that of determining whether a person is a Muslim at death, a role the civil courts should adopt.

“It is the responsibility of every state government, whether they are Pakatan or Barisan, to take immediate steps to amend the state enactments on these points,” he added.

Leong said this when contacted to comment on yesterday’s withdrawal of the bill from parliamentary debate through a motion by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom.

This follows the July 5 announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that the cabinet had decided to withdraw the bill, which was aimed at replacing the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993.

The bill, which had its first reading on June 26, was originally set for its second reading when the Dewan Rakyat convened this week.

It had faced heavy opposition from the Malaysian Bar Council and even Barisan Nasional component parties like the MCA, MIC and Gerakan.

Leong said that while the Bar Council welcomed the withdrawal of the Bill, the government should have stated that the conversion of minors must be done with the consent of both parents.

He added that the 1993 Act is unconstitutional and should be amended to state that the consent of both parents is required for the conversion of a minor.

Other members of the legal fraternity have also called on the federal government to streamline federal law on the matter with state laws.

Lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said a uniform law encompassing all states should be enacted to stop unilateral conversions.

“Look at Article 76(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution which allows for Parliament to enact laws for states where uniformity is necessary. It is not unusual for Parliament to do this as this type of power was used for the Local Government Act,” said Malik Imtiaz

Constitutional law expert Syahredzan Johan agreed, explaining that under Article 76, Parliament has three grounds with which it may legislate on matters such as Islamic law which falls under the legislative power of the states, which are;
> to implement treaties or conventions into which the Federation of Malaysia has entered into,
> to promote uniformity between the laws of various states; and
> at the direct request of a state assembly.

Syahredzan added: “Any laws or bills under Article 76 must be adopted by the various state assemblies before it can come into operation.”

Both lawyers were asked for their comments on further action that the federal government could take to reform Islamic law to block unilateral conversions of minors to Islam.

On unilateral conversions, Syahredzan concurred that the various states should take the initiative to amend their respective Islamic Enactment on the issue of unilateral conversions.

Meanwhile, Lawyers For Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen said streamlining of the Islamic laws relating to conversions of minors was needed as the different laws of different states has caused uncertainty and hardship to many families which have filed civil suits to resolve such matters.

“Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak should convince his cabinet to resolve this issue once and for all, and consult all relevant stakeholders and come up with proper laws on the procedure for conversions and make it uniform through the whole country,” he said.

He added that any law resolving the different Islamic laws of the different states has to be fair and just to all parties involved, including minors and the non-Muslim spouse.

Tan Yi Liang
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