Today, the Kuala Lumpur High Court allowed Madam Loh Siew Hong’s habeas corpus application to compel the immediate release of her three children who were unilaterally converted by her ex-husband, from the Perlis Welfare Department.
What is so startling about this case is the fact that Madam Loh was compelled to apply for habeas corpus despite already having sole custody of her children! The chilling truth is that the Perlis religious authorities and institution’s insistence on keeping the children shows their blatant refusal to obey the High Court’s order.
The facts in Madam Loh’s case are strikingly similar with previous high-profile cases involving the unilateral conversion of underage children in the absence of their mothers: Shamala Shanathan in 2003, Subashini in 2006, S. Deepa in 2012, Indira Gandhi in 2009, to name a few. In Indira Gandhi’s case, the High Court compelled the return of her children in 2014. With the police citing the challenge of locating her ex-husband’s and youngest daughter’s whereabouts, Indira Gandhi remains forcefully separated from her daughter, 13 years since the date of the child’s conversion.
But in Loh Siew Hong’s case, the children’s whereabouts are known. She tracked down her children on her own, not with the help of authorities.
To be clear, Loh Siew Hong has done everything a devoted mother can do to ensure that her children are back with her. In just days upon leaving the women’s shelter after having her limbs fractured by her ex-husband, she quickly sought and obtained interim custody of her children while simultaneously applying for a divorce. Despite the lockdown she continued her anguished search, lodging 9 different police reports. She then sought and obtained full custody of her children in March 2021 from the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
Within the very limited means of this single mother, she has exhausted every kernel of effort known to her. We can only imagine how terrified she must have been for the past three years. Yet, she remained utterly resilient in her search to have her young children – 11-year-old twin daughters and 7-year-old son at the time of the physical assault – back in her arms.
The law as laid down by the Federal Court in Indira Gandhi’s case in 2018 is clear – a unilateral conversion in the absence of the mother (or father) is null and void. In spite of this, the Perlis Mufti and the Perlis religious department has been grossly negligent in allowing the conversion to proceed even though the mother mother was absent. The learned Mufti and the Perlis state apparatus have not issued any apology and have shown no public remorse for causing unimaginable anguish to this single mother. On the contrary, the Perlis Mufti disrespectfully turned a blind eye to Loh Siew Hong’s pain by claiming that “the children don’t want to return to their mother”.
This case is one of now too many displaying the same chronological patterns – violence towards the mother, removal of the children from the mother, conversion of the young children into Islam which used as a means of separating the mother from her children. Names of children are also usually changed upon conversion, which further entrenches the divide between mother and children. This is truly a potent technique of emotional assault on both mother and children.
The unilateral conversion of Loh Siew Hong’s three children will soon be challenged in a judicial review. The outcome of this case has serious repercussions. This is about undercurrents in the Malaysian society caused by threats to peace. If the religious authorities claim that such conversion cases are ‘sensitive’ cases, then what about the stability and harmony between races in Malaysia? Isn’t that a greater good? Isn’t that more ‘sensitive’ and needs to be protected at all costs?
The rights of a loving and responsible mother is a natural right respected in every religion. It is a sacred right as inalienable as the fundamental rights to life, property, and freedom. Violating these rights while harming an innocent mother is a betrayal of this sacred right.
Loh’s desperate plea that she would be willing to convert to Islam just to have her children back with her is a disturbing cry of unmistakable anguish. It calls to question the very foundation of love that every religion stands for.
In any event, a nine-judge panel of the Federal Court chaired by the Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat had also declared today that any attempt to carry out judicial reviews of Islamic authorities’ decisions by the Shariah courts goes against the Federal Constitution. The message to “little Napoleons” in Malaysia’s religious bodies on this issue is clear: respect our Federal Constitution as the highest law of the land. End the use of this tactic that is tarnishing both the good name of the noble religion of Islam, as well as their own.