Federal minister Jamil Khir Baharom’s view that a ban on unilateral conversion of minors is unconstitutional is so out of sync with constitutional theory as to be bizarre, said DAP MP for Ipoh Barat M Kulasegaran.
“He’s trying to make what is aberrant normative,” said Kulasegaran.
Jamil Khir had offered the view in Parliament, in response to Kulasegaran’s written question on when unilateral conversions of minors would be banned, that such a ban would be unconstitutional.
“In all probability, as the basis for the minister’s view, Jamil is placing a narrow construction on the word ‘parent’ in the relevant clause pertaining to religious conversion of minors which if done unilaterally is disallowed,” asserted Kulasegaran.
The DAP national vice-chair said the stipulation in the constitution on interpretation of words in the general clauses of the document clearly state that words appearing in the singular should be taken as plural and those appearing as plural should be interpreted as plural.
“But from 2002, the Bahasa Malaysia editions of the constitution had begun supplanting the Bahasa term for parents which is ‘ibu bapa’ with ‘ibu atau bapa’ and this has engendered the confusion that now pervades the interpretation of stipulations barring unilateral conversions in cases where parents have become estranged or are divorced,” said Kulasegaran.
He said Jamil’s opinion that a bar on unilateral conversions was unconstitutional flies in the face of a 2009 cabinet directive that children of estranged or divorced parents must adhere to the religion of the parents when they were married and not when one spouse elects to convert.
“Though that cabinet directive did not have the force of law, it was reasonable and fair in the construction it placed on the gender equality and freedom of religion clauses guaranteed by the constitution,” pointed out Kulasegaran.
He said that though no further developments on the contentious issue were forthcoming after the 2009 cabinet directive was issued, the formation last year of a five-member cabinet committee to recommend measures to alleviate the issue was a promising initiative.
“More so when one member, Health Minister S Subramaniam, announced in January that the prime minister had agreed in principle to consider amending the law so that children cannot be converted to another religion without the consent of both parents,” said Kulasegaran.
He said that in the light of these developments, Jamil Khir’s view that barring unilateral conversions would be unconstitutional was “bizarre and not in keeping with ministerial consensus and prime ministerial inclination on the issue”.
“The PM must urgently put right this matter and steer a resolution of this vexed issue that is in accord with constitutional guarantees on gender equality and equal treatment under the law,” argued Kulasegaran.