A Malaysian Hindu mother who was given custody of her children after her ex-husband took them and unilaterally converted to Islam is now contesting the forced conversion of her children to Islam. Loh Siew Hong, a 35-year-old Hindu Chinese woman in Malaysia, was granted custody of her children on February 21 this year following a three-year legal battle.
However, Loh’s ordeal is far from over, with her attorneys contending that the children’s conversion to Islam was unlawful. Some traditionalist Muslims argue that now that the youth have converted, there is no turning back. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, an Islamist group that forms part of the national government, has advised Loh not to dispute the conversion. The punishment for apostasy in Islam is death.
The group’s information chief Khairil Nizam Khirudin told AFP, “If we can meet her, we will persuade her to allow the children to practise Islam.” Loh is encountering hostility in her efforts to re-convert her children to their original faith. Loh’s case is similar to several others in which the wife is tortured before her children are converted unilaterally by the husband.
Background of the case
Loh Siew Hong filed for divorce and separated in March 2019 from her husband after years of domestic violence at the hands of her Indian-origin spouse Nagahswaran Muniandy. Loh was thereafter hospitalised for a lengthy period as a result of injuries inflicted by her ex-husband. Her children were taken away by her ex-husband, who had by that time converted to Islam.
During her hospital stay, her ex-husband Muniandy relocated her son, aged 10, and two twin daughters, aged 14, to the State of Perlis where he converted them to Islam with the help of an Islamic NGO. Since the children were minors and Loh Siew Hong’s consent was not sought, the conversion was considered “unilateral”.
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 Malaysia went into Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020; she finally obtained an order granting her full and sole custody in March 2021,” reported MalayMail.
Meanwhile, her estranged spouse Muniandy was caught and sentenced to prison in Kelantan for a drug-related offence. The NGO refused Loh Siew Hong’s request to meet her children. The youngsters were then relocated to a children’s home in Kedah.
The legal battle
Loh Siew Hong filed a habeas corpus application before the Kuala Lumpur High Court on February 13 of this year. Following the submission of the application, the children were placed in the care of a ‘neutral’ party, the Perlis Welfare Department.
Hong stated in her application that a female Islamic preacher named Nazirah Nanthakumari Abdullah confined her children at the Hidayah Centre Foundation in Bayan Lepas, Penang, Malaysia and would not allow her to meet them. The Islamic NGO instead transferred her children to a children’s home.
In the court order, Justice Datuk Collin Lawrence Sequerah noted that Loh 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.”
Challenging unilateral conversions
Though Loh has been united with her children, her struggle continues as she faces opposition from the Islamic society to get her children’s conversion annulled. The topic has become yet another flashpoint between increasingly vocal Islamist hardliners and those defending minorities’ rights.
Decades of policies favouring Malays, critics argue, have strained ties, with the country’s generally moderate brand of Islam losing momentum to increasing radicalism. According to human rights organisations, most incidents of unilateral conversion go unreported, only coming to light when a parent files a legal challenge. Loh’s case is one such case.