Inconsistent laws on religious conversion might impede mediation

MINISTER in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar suggested recently that mediation might provide a way out for the settlement of inter-faith custody battles.

Naim has good intentions to resolve these custody problems to move ahead. However, he might not realise that inter-faith custody disputes are not as straightforward as other civil matters that might be potentially resolved by mediation.

Datuk Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar

Mediation can only proceed in a healthy manner provided that there are no conflicts in the law.

Right now, even though the Federal Constitution only permits religious conversion of minors with the consent of both parents (the Federal Court decision in the case of the children of Indira Gandhi), state laws are contradictory.

There are state laws that allow for conversion of minors without the consent of both parents. Unless and until state laws are rendered consistent with the Federal Constitution, different interpretations might arise in the interfaith custody disputes.

In other words, the law must be intact and constitutional before mediation takes place. In civil matters, mediation has a role because there is no dispute with the law. It is merely a question of parties going for a win-win situation.

Religious disputes are different; if the laws are uncertain and confusing, mediation might not be the right way. As it is, inter-faith disputes are perceived as a zero-sum game especially in the Malaysian social, cultural and political context.

If laws are ambiguous, if there is conflict between the federal constitution and the state laws, problems might arise in the pursuit of mediation.

In fact, mediation might complicate matters while cases might be postponed and ultimately disputes will not be resolved.

I suggest that even before the mediation is suggested – which is not a bad idea – it would be extremely useful for the government to ensure that state laws are consistent with the Federal Constitution on religious conversion, particularly the conversion of minors.

This is the reason why the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) remarked that meditation might not be right way to resolve inter-faith disputes.

The inconsistency between the Federal Constitution and the state laws is the main reason why the MCCBCHST thinks that mediation is not the best way forward on the matter of interfaith custody disputes.

I would like to kindly advise Naim that he undertakes the primary task of rendering the state laws on religious conversion consistent with the Federal Constitution.

It might take time, but it is still worth it. If not disputes on inter-faith conversion of minors might be on the rise. – May 31, 2023


Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the state assemblyman for Perai. He is also Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

Main pic credit: Malay Mail

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