Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wanita MCA: Amendments to LRA must protect rights of non-converting spouses & minor children

Press statement by Wanita MCA Chairman Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun in response to proposed amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce) Act 1976

A briefing on laws pertaining to religious conversion was held at the Federal Territory Mosque where Senior Federal Counsel Mohamad Naser Disa spoke about proposed amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976.

Joint petition for divorce and alimony
Wanita MCA supports the proposed amendments which gives the civil courts the authority to decide on matters pertaining to the dissolution of marriage which includes divorce, judicial separation and nullity; alimony; custody of children and matrimonial assets. This is parallel with MCA’s position that any marriage contracted by civil law may only be annulled through civil law.

A spouse may have embraced Islam but this does not negate the civil court’s jurisdiction to hear the application for divorce, judicial separation and nullity and/or ancillary relief by the non-converting spouse. Notwithstanding if a spouse has become a Muslim, the civil court still holds jurisdiction in determining issues in respect of the marriage’s dissolution, maintenance to spouse and children, custody, access and division of matrimonial property. The Muallaf is thus obliged by civil law to fulfill his/her obligations under the civil court as contracted by a civil marriage to his/her spouse and minor children.

Division of jointly-acquired matrimonial property
Wanita MCA further endorses the proposed amendments to the LRA with respects to matrimonial assets and property which were jointly-acquired. To allay fears that a non-converting spouse has no access to property which were jointly acquired before the spouse converted to Islam, the proposed amendments run in tandem with MCA’s position that jointly acquired matrimonial properties comprised in the estate prior to the date of conversion should be subject to the civil laws of inheritance and succession for the time in force.

Conversion and custody of minor children
As Naser informed at the briefing that the proposed amendments prohibits either parent from registering the conversion of their children, this is in line with the Cabinet decision on 22 April 2009 that should one spouse embrace Islam, the minor children should be brought up in accordance with the common religion at the time of marriage.

Wanita MCA hereby reiterates MCA’s consistent position that both parents must have equal rights in determining the minor child’s religion. It is in compliance Article 5(1) of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 (revised 1988) which spells equality of parental rights, i.e. “equality of parental rights or the administration of the income of any such property, a mother shall have equal rights and authority as the law allows to the father, and the rights and authority of mother and father shall be equal.”

It is only ethical that should the Muallaf intend to convert the minor children, he/she ought to inform the non-converting parent and obtain his/her consent before registering the minor children as Muslims.

On any occasion should the child’s religion be in dispute by the other party, it must remain as status quo at the time of birth or as with the common religion of the parents at the time of marriage, until the minor child reaches the age of majority, i.e. 18 years whereupon the child then decides his/her religion.

In the same vein, the rights of the non-converting spouse as to the custody of the child cannot be denied, all just because one spouse chooses to become a Muslim.

Perhaps what is more direly needed now is how the proposed amendments to the LRA may have a bearing on enactments related with religion at all levels so as to ensure that the rights of non-converting parents are protected.

Meanwhile, the proposed amendment to Section 51 of the LRA is also a feasible move which enables Muslim converts to petition for a divorce, judicial separation or nullity in a civil court which previously could only be done by the non-converting spouse citing spousal conversion as a ground for divorce. However, we would like to stress the principle that the converting spouse does not make conversion an excuse to evade his/her obligations within the family but recognize that conversion comes with responsibility.

In addition, we support the proposal to amend Section 89 of the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993 which stipulates that the Registrar of New Covnerts inform the non-converting families of the conversion.

The amendments must ensure that the rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims are protected.

Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun
Wanita MCA National Chairman

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