Sore need for plurality in law
Brave New World
By AZMI SHAROM
Over the years, our courts as a whole have been steadily abdicating their duty to protect the citizens’ rights as stated in the Federal Constitution.
YOU may remember the Shamala case; the story of a Hindu man converting to Islam and then without the consent of his Hindu wife converting their two small children as well. The latest development in this saga is the Federal Court decision on the 12th of this month.
The roots of this case lie in the judgment of the High Court in 2004; the judge held that it was all right for one parent to convert their child without consent from the other.
His reasoning was based on Article 12 (4) of the Federal Constitution which states: “The religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian”.
He noted that the article says “parent”, not “parents”. This is an overly simplistic literal interpretation of the article, for if taken to its logical conclusion what it can lead to is a child being converted by one parent one day and then converted again by the other parent the next day.
Surely this ridiculous situation was not what the article intended and surely it can be implied that the word “parent” means both parents.
He then proceeded to give custody to the mother but on the condition that she will not expose the children to her Hindu faith. Again, this is another strange ruling. It places an unreasonable condition on the mother.
After this decision, the mother left the country with her two children.
Meanwhile, her lawyers appealed to the Court of Appeal asking the court to decide, among other things, on the constitutionality of one parent being able to unilaterally convert their children.
The Court of Appeal agreed to allow the case to go straight to Federal Court, the highest court in the land, to decide the matter on the grounds that it will save time and effort as whatever its decision, one of the parties will appeal to the Federal Court anyway.
The Federal Court decided not to make a judgment on the constitutional issues as the mother and the children were now out of the country and therefore whatever it decides will come to naught as she is not within its jurisdiction.
The Federal Court judges made clear their displeasure that this woman had left the country in contempt of the court and was now seeking a decision from the very same court; something they were not going to do.
With all due respect to the court, I am of the opinion that this entire situation is the result of our courts as a whole steadily over the years abdicating their duty to protect the citizens’ rights as stated in the Federal Constitution.
And now using a technicality, albeit a legally sound one, they are once again side-stepping an important constitutional question.
Time and time again, we have seen our courts hide from their responsibility to uphold the Constitution whenever cases involving Islam appear.
They either do it by stating that such matters belong in the jurisdiction of the Syariah court, even though the Syariah court has no jurisdiction to answer questions regarding the Constitution, or they come out with a ruling like the High Court decision in this particular case.
The courts have lost track of the fact that this is a secular country and that its citizens have rights as stated in our secular constitution. They have bent over backwards, for reasons unknown, to allow Islamic matters to be above and beyond the limits placed within the Constitution.
In this way, they have ignored the fact that this country, being a multi-religious and secular one, needs a high degree of plurality in order to avoid injustice.
> Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.