KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 16 ― Malaysians should not be required to have their religious affiliations openly displayed in public documents like their identity cards or birth certificates, rights advocates said following debate here over the tussle for legal jurisdiction in child conversion cases.
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan said mandating one’s religion to be put on public record violates the constitutional right of Malaysians to freedom of religion.
“We must be able to choose if we have a religion, what religion to profess, and if we wish to disclose this information,” Sumitra told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
She also said that in cases of the unilateral religious conversion of children, the requirement to register a child’s creed becomes a tool of power and control over the non-consenting parent.
“It could legitimise the conversion of the child, although both parents have not consented to the conversion. We must step away from allowing the politicisation of race and religion or facilitating yet another tool to violate constitutional rights,” the women’s rights activist added.
In the latest high-profile unilateral conversion case, the Federal Court last week split custody between S. Deepa and her ex-husband Izwan Abdullah, a Muslim convert who had converted their two children to Islam without their mother’s knowledge. Deepa won custody of her 11-year-old daughter, while the eight-year-old son went to Izwan who had taken him from Deepa three years ago.
Voice of the Children (VoC) deputy president Dr Hartini Zainudin said putting one’s race or religion on their identity card ― MyKid for children below 12 years and MyKad for those above 12 ― was an outdated practice.
“We’re just Malaysians,” Hartini told Malay Mail Online. “Putting race or religion on MyKid or IC separates Malaysians from one another”.
The child rights activist also said one’s ethnicity could be recorded on their birth certificate, but one’s religious status should not be part of any public record for the sake of privacy.
The MyKid contains the religious affiliation of the child’s parents, while the MyKad records the cardholder’s religion. For both documents, a Muslim or a child born to Muslim parents has the word “Islam” printed on the card.
The MyKid, however, is not a mandatory document. The chip in the MyKad also contains the cardholder’s race. Birth certificates similarly record a child’s race and religion.
Lawyers for Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen, however, said it would be difficult for Malaysia to move away from including citizens’ religious status as part of public record due to the country’s dual legal system and Bumiputera privileges.
“Think it’s difficult in Malaysia as a lot of rights and privileges (also offences specific to Muslims) are tied to Islam and there must be a practical way for authorities to verify if someone is a Muslim or not,” he said.
“But we need more public debate on whether it’s desirable to have religious status on MyKad. Is this the only practical way or can there be other means of record keeping?” the lawyer questioned.