A Malaysian Aversion to Conversion

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!

Tan became the first living person to be allowed to leave Islam in Malaysia.


This May, the first living person was allowed to leave Islam. Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah was granted legal permission to become a Buddhist and take a new name, Tan Ean Hung.

This case – hailed as a historic ruling then – now seems to be more historical.

Amidst strong protests by Islamist groups in the capital of Kuala Lumpur against the verdict, the government itself was reported as intending to appeal the case.

The state is likely to get its way. Numerous conversion attempts had failed before. Noorashikin Lim Abdullah had converted to Islam as required by law to marry her Muslim husband in 1994. When they divorced three years later, she wanted to revert from her adopted Muslim name to her original Chinese one, and become a Christian. Her attempt to have them officially reinstated on her citizen identity card failed. The National Registration Board said she needed proof she had the Islamic religious court's permission to leave the faith.

Noorashikin tried the high court which told her they had no jurisdiction. Now the case has been thrown out by the court of appeals. The judges ruled that she had used her Chinese name in her suit, but legally “Lim Yoke Khoon” does not exist.

In other cases, in 2005, Lina Joy was legally barred from changing her religion on her identity card from Islam – which she was born into – to Christianity, though she had a Catholic baptism certificate. On the other hand, the family of Maniam Moorthy, an ethnic Indian, was not allowed to bury him as a Hindu – as he was raised. The courts determined he had converted to Islam without his family's knowledge.

"What is done in Malaysia is not because Islam requires it but because local custom requires it. We do certain things that other countries find unacceptable, just like how other countries do some things that we do not find acceptable."

That was the explanation offered by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in response to the Tan Ean Hung case.

IN A SIMILAR DEVELOPMENT, a marriage between a Hindu and a Christian has been declared invalid under India's Hindu Marriage Act.

The wife, a Hindu, said her husband since 1996 had lied about him being a Roman Catholic. She applied for a divorce but was rejected by the matrimonial court which said the marriage was valid under the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, even if both parties were not Hindus.

This has been overthrown by the High Court, which declared the Act postulates marriage only between Hindus.


dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi