By Razak Ahmad
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (Reuters)
- Malaysia's highest court began proceedings on Monday on a landmark
inter-religious child custody dispute whose outcome could further raise
political tension in this mainly Muslim country.|
The Federal Court heard objections by lawyers representing an
ethnic Indian couple fighting each other for custody of their two
children and adjourned for two weeks before hearing the case.
A Hindu woman, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, won temporary custody
of her two children in 2004 following her husband's conversion to Islam.
She is seeking full custody and a declaration that it is illegal under
Malaysia's constitution for a parent to convert a minor to Islam without
the other's consent.
Malaysia's dual-track legal system where Muslims fall under
Islamic family laws while non-Muslims come under civil laws has led to
overlaps and unresolved religious disputes that have fuelled minority
unhappiness and raised political tensions.
"This is a fundamental constitutional question being brought
up for the first time, and a lot of other cases will abide by the ruling
on this case," Shamala's lawyer, Cyrus Das, told reporters.
Apart from inter-religious custody battles, an ongoing legal
battle is pending in court over the right of Christians to use the word
"Allah" to describe God, which led a church being razed and other
religious institutions attacked.
The spike in ethno-religious tensions in the past few years
has started to worry investors at a time when Prime Minister Najib Razak
has pledged political and economic reforms to woo investment.
The uncertainties and heightened political tensions after the
government's historic polls defeats in the last general election in
2008 have helped dent foreign investment.
Net portfolio and direct investment outflows reached $61
billion in 2008 and 2009 according to official data.
Unhappiness with the government over religious and ethnic
issues by minorities who make up 40 percent of the country's 28 million
population was among the factors that led to the ruling coalition's
historic poll losses in 2008.
Najib's National Front coalition, which has ruled this
Southeast Asian country uninterrupted since independence from Britain in
1957, lost control in five of 13 states and its once iron-clad two
Since taking office in April last year, Najib has reached out
to minorities by introducing a "1Malaysia" policy to foster greater
inclusiveness and set up an inter-religious committee to foster
The cabinet in April last year issued a directive banning the
unilateral religious conversion of minors by one parent but its
implementation is still uncertain.
The ruling coalition won its first parliamentary by-election
recently after a string of losses and is heading to another by-election
next week in the Borneo state of Sarawak, which has a large Christian
But the by-election comes at a time when major church there
has a pending court case against the government over its right to use
the word "Allah".
Observers say a failure by Najib to resolve the disputes
could jeopardise his efforts to deliver a strong performance for the
coalition in the coming general election due by 2013 but which could be
called as early as next year.
"There is a huge crack in the nation due to the overlaps (in
jurisdiction between Islamic and civil courts) and the rolling back of
rights," said Ivy Josiah, executive director of rights group Women's Aid
"If unresolved, people will have no choice but to go to the
ballot box," said Josiah, whose WAO is one of five rights groups granted
observer status by the federal court on the Shamala case.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)