Loh Siew Hong, a 35-year-old Hindu Chinese woman in Malaysia, was struggling for 3 years to obtain custody of her children. When the long wait was finally over on Monday (February 21, 2022), the mother-of-three could not hold back her tears.
“The three children are to be released forthwith into the sole custody, care, and control of the applicant,” the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered. For Hong who had suffered all her life, it was a moment of tranquillity. She was finally reunited with her 10-year-old son and two 14-year-old twin daughters.
High court judge Collin Sequerah has ordered the welfare department to immediately release all three children aged 14 and 10 to their mother Loh Siew Hong, in line with an earlier court order granting her full custody,care & control of her children.Respondent contemplating appeal https://t.co/mHycYQh19F pic.twitter.com/FzWQfgrCDC— Melissa Goh (@MelGohCNA) February 21, 2022
The Background of the Case
After suffering years of domestic abuse at the hands of her Indian-origin husband Nagahswaran Muniandy, she had filed for a divorce and separated in March 2019. Loh Siew Hong was then hospitalised for a long time due to injuries inflicted by Muniandy. Her children were taken away by her estranged husband, who had converted to Islam by then.
Hong failed to trace her children and sought the help of the police. “In December 2019, she obtained interim custody of her children pending her divorce, but her court case was delayed when the country went into Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020; she finally obtained an order granting her full and sole custody in March 2021,” reported MalayMail.
During the period of her hospitalisation, Muniandy took her 10-year-old son and two 14-year-old twin daughters to the State of Perlis and converted them to Islam with the help of an Islamic NGO. The conversion was ‘unilateral’ as the children were minors and the consent of Loh Siew Hong was not sought.
In the meantime, her estranged husband Muniandy was arrested for a drug-related offence and was sent to a prison in Kelantan. When Loh Siew Hong tried to meet her children, the NGO denied permission. The children were then transferred to a children’s home in Kedah.
Loh Siew Hong moved Kuala Lampur High Court
On February 13 this year, a motion of habeas corpus was filed by Loh Siew Hong before the Kuala Lumpur High Court. After filing the application, the children were put under the care of a ‘neutral’ party, the Perlis Welfare Department.
She was represented in court by advocate A Srimurugan. In her application, Hong pointed out that a female Islamic preacher by the name of Nazirah Nanthakumari Abdullah kept her children at the Hidayah Centre Foundation in Bayan Lepas in Penang and did not allow her to meet them. The Islamic NGO instead transferred her children to a children’s home.
“The actions of the respondents to keep the children without the applicant’s consent constitute illegal or inappropriate detention in private care and this warrants the court’s intervention as the applicant does not know the specific location of her children. The applicant has reasons to believe that there are intention and attempts by the respondents to convert her children to Islam and to take them outside of this court’s jurisdiction,” the application stated.
With our JAG sisters, we call on all arms of gov to enforce immediately Loh Siew Hong’s rights as a mother to have full custody, care & control of her children. Unilateral conversion defended by religious authorities at the expense of a mother’s custody rights IS NOT acceptable pic.twitter.com/juGpFkFarW— All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) (@AWAMMalaysia) February 18, 2022
Mother couldn’t meet children but ‘mufti’ could
On February 15, the ‘neutral’ Perlis Welfare Department denied permission to Loh Siew Hong to meet her kids, citing ‘rising Covid-19 cases.’ However, Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin was allowed to spend time with her children and further ‘indoctrinate’ them.
It thus came as no surprise when the underage children told their 35-year-old mother to convert to Islam in their first meeting. A helpless Hong even agreed to become a Muslim if her children could come and live with her.
Hindu woman gets custody of children
While arguing in the Court, Hong’s lawyer A Srimurugan stated, “I don’t see this happening in any other country, where the mother doesn’t even get to see her own children. I can understand if the mother has a criminal tendency or history of hurting her child, but this is not the case here.”
He further added, “There is absolutely no reason for her (Loh) to be deprived of her right to be with her children.” On the contrary, the lawyer for female preacher Nazira said that his client took responsibility for the kids in the absence of their father.
Advocate Aidil Khalid claimed in court, “In her affidavit, she stated how she came to know the children. When the father went missing, she took the responsibility of taking care of them. It was her who initiated communication with the mother. If she had any bad intentions to take away the children from their mother, she wouldn’t have initiated communications with her.”
Justice Datuk Collin Lawrence Sequerah noted that Hong was accorded the custody of her 3 minor children by the Kuala Lumpur High Court in December 2019 (interim ex-parte order) and in March 2021 (final order) He stated, “The court orders should not be treated with impunity. I allow the application as per enclosure one (writ of habeas corpus)…The three children are to be released forthwith into the sole custody, care, and control of the applicant”
Landmark judgment in Indira Gandhi case paved the way for Hong’s success
The Federal Court ruling in the M. Indira Gandhi case is hailed as a landmark decision that reaffirms the civil courts’ powers to declare unilateral conversions of children as unlawful. In that case, K. Pathmanathan, a Hindu, converted to Islam on March 11, 2009 and he became Muhammad Riduan Abdullah. On April 2 in the same year, he converted his three children to Islam who were born out of his civil marriage held in 1993 with Perak-based Hindu mother M Indira Gandhi. He had converted them without her knowledge and consent.
M Indira Gandhi had filed a case against this conversion of her three children without her consent, and in 2013, the Ipoh High Court had declared the conversion certificates of the three minor children Tevi Darshiny, Karan Dinesh and Prasana Diksa, as null and void. The high court had stated that consent of both parents is required for the religious conversion of minor children. However, in 2015, the Court of Appeal had quashed the high court order, saying that civil courts have no jurisdiction over matters related to conversion to Islam.
The Court of Appeals had ruled that whether a person is Muslim or not can be determined by the Sharia court only. It had said that the high court order declaring the conversion of three children as null and void had transgressed the exclusive jurisdiction of Sharia courts. The court order was applicable for the two younger children, as the eldest child had turned 18 and had the right to decide her religion.
Following this, M Indira Gandhi had approached the Federal Court, the apex court in Malaysia, and the court in 2018 had overturned the order by the court of appeals. The court had ruled that consent of both parents must be sought for religious conversion of minors, said that the word “parent” should not be construed literally. “The word ‘parent’ – is a case of being lost in translation. Both parents have equal rights,” the Federal Court had said.
The Federal Court had resolved a long-standing dispute over the word “parent” mentioned in Article 12 (4), as many argued that the consent of a parent may suffice. Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia says that the religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his or her parent or guardian. The Federal Court in the Indira Gandhi had ruled that parent means both the parents, thereby settling the dispute.
The future plans of Loh Siew Hong
While speaking to Free Malaysia Today, Loh Siew Hong said that she wants to start a food truck business to fund the education of her 3 children. Currently, she is employed as an assistant chef at a hotel in Genting Highlands.
She informed, “My passion is cooking. I even studied culinary arts at a community college. At first, I wanted to rent a stall at a shop near Cameron Highlands. But then I thought, if I had a food truck, I could sell my food at different places. That way, I can earn more money to save up for my children’s education. I want to send them to university.“
“I have bought all the cooking ware, thinking I will be able to rent a small stall. I have also seen some food trucks for sale online, but I am unsure if I can afford it now. But, I am open to advice,” the mother of three added.
One of her daughters plans on studying law while the other wants to join the police academy. Her 10-year-old son aspires to repair big drones someday. The story of Hong represents courage and a mother’s determination to secure the future of her children, who were abducted and unilaterally converted to Islam.