The truth behind the government’s refusal to allow Section 88A to see the light of day has nothing to with conflicts but everything to do with its struggle for power

COMMENT

While activists mourn the demise of Clause 88A of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, its passing was inexorable when the ruling BN government sidetracked its tabling in parliament to instead bend over backwards for PAS’ controversial shariah bill.

Remarks from Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in March where he said that PM Najib Razak was thoroughly committed to bringing up amendments to the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (also known as Act 355 or RUU355) but not at the expense of other faiths left conscientious Malaysians stunned.

Ahmad Zahid then told Umno members: “Bill 355 will be tabled by the government in parliament soon. InshaAllah by praying for us to unite the Malays.”

The DPM asked that support be shown to the deal reached by Umno with opposition PAS for the sake of national prosperity and religion.

The RU355 was first presented by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang as a Private Member’s Bill in the Dewan Rakyat in May 2016 to strengthen the shariah courts.

When the federal government in November 2016 finally tabled an amendment to the LRA which saw putting in place legal safeguards against unilateral conversion of minors, it was a day when Putrajaya earned new-found respect.

The LRA then was tabled by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said for first reading at the Dewan Rakyat where she highlighted the inclusion of a new Section 88A that explicitly states that “both parties” in a civil marriage must agree for the conversion of a minor into Islam.

The issue of unilateral conversions became a hot button subject in recent years after mothers M Indira Gandhi and S Deepa endured lengthy court battles to gain custody and reverse the unilateral conversion of their children by their Muslim convert ex-husbands.

While Indira and Deepa spent sleepless nights worrying about the fate of their offspring, the government was tackling a different kind of stress – that of trying to defend its power come the 14h general election.

Struck by the realisation that BN’s fate at the polls would see better chances had it the support of Malay voters, the government thought of a quid pro quo with Islamist party PAS.

That meant giving PAS’ shariah bill precedence and a safe passage in parliament but not before kicking the LRA out of the way.

Needless to say, Putrajaya’s unimpressive Russian roulette robbed it of what little respect it had earned through its decision to downplay the LRA.

The amendments to the LRA were pushed aside in favour of the Umno-PAS power play, underpinning the truth that Putrajaya was never serious about amending the LRA to put an end to unilateral conversions.

Activists livid with the federal government’s sleazy politicking took it to task, hankering that Putrajaya stop its rhetoric and start honouring its promises.

The LRA has been amended, finally. But there is no sight of Section 88A as Azalina, who is also the de facto law minister, withdrew the amendment on Monday and tabled a fresh bill on Aug 9 without the mentioned article.

She claimed the removal of the section was because it contradicts Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution.

So the LRA is devoid of the promised Section 88A, a decision which has earned Putrajaya much whiplash.

To disgruntled opposition lawmaker M Kulasegaran, this U-turn has all to do with pacifying Malay voters despite Section 88A having been an agenda with Putrajaya since 2009.

“Section 88A was proposed by the government. They had no issue since 2009 until now. It is only now, they are making a U-turn,” he said.

Kulasegaran, a practising lawyer, can only conclude that politics of the day has rattled Najib.

The Ipoh Barat MP pointed out that a child under the age of 18 cannot be converted in view of the Age of Majority Act 1971.

“There are no conflicts here. Under the Age of Majority Act, those under the age of 18 cannot even sign a contract,” said Kulasegaran.

The truth behind the government’s refusal to allow Section 88A to see the light of day has nothing to with conflicts but everything to do with its struggle for power – regardless of the ensuing repercussions and the fate of the people.

Given the consistent failure to honour its word, BN should consider taking a cue from its nemesis Pakatan Harapan and act likewise by tweaking the right-wing BN logo from dacing to something that resonates with a U-turn.

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