The issue is to respect the rule of law

The best news I heard this week was the Federal Court Judges’ decision on allowing kindergarten teacher M Indira Gandhi’s appeal over the conversion of her three children in 2009 by her ex-husband, K Pathamanathan @ Muhammad Riduan Abdullah, who had converted to Islam.

I’m not a lawyer. As an ordinary law-abiding (yes, law-abiding!) citizen, I think the Judges unequivocally upheld the rule of law over the land, interpreting the law according to the provisions of the Federal Constitution. They were not swayed by religious beliefs.

They made it very clear what the law is: that both parents must consent to the religious conversion of minor children; that the civil courts have jurisdiction to hear cases when aggrieved parties question conversion to Islam. As a result, the certificates of conversion issued by the Perak Registrar of Muallafs on Tevi Darshiny, Karan Dinesh and Prasana Diksa (Indira’s children) are now null and void.

In effect, the judges maintained their neutral stance and upheld the rights of minority groups without diminishing the rights of the dominant majority group.

I understand some Muslims are upset by the decision because they think Islam has been made less important. Certainly not. The special position of Islam in the country remains but the apex court’s decision shows that even where the main religion is Islam, minorities have the right to practice the religion of their choice.

The Federal Court has made that crystal clear. The question is will the rest of the country abide by it, and respect the rule of law?

Some people have expressed concerns that the judges’ ruling might cause people to engage in acts of violence. If that happens, it is clear that emotional and irrational logic has taken over clear thinking!

According to a friend who is a Sabahan, and one who is very familiar with this issue, this seems to be a problem here in West Malaysia. “There (East Malaysia) it’s not a problem. They follow the constitution. If one spouse converts … the father doesn’t insist that the children must follow,” he said. The same is true if the mother converts; no one coerces the children to follow the religion of the converted parent.

“When they become adults and choose a different religion, that’s different. That’s their choice,” he continued, adding, “If the father insists, the wife’s side — the family and village — will come after him!”

This is the law of the land and practised in East Malaysia but is an issue here in Peninsular Malaysia. When it comes to religious issues, some people here in West Malaysia think they have to follow the religious laws even when it contravenes constitutional law because it is a superior law.

As a result, we have cases of pastors being abducted (Pastor Raymond Koh’s case) and disappearing from the face of the Earth without any trace of their whereabouts, and children kidnapped from their mothers’ bosoms and kept away from maternal nurturing.

The latter was what prompted Indira to file her appeal against her ex-husband who, after his conversion, took their 11-month-old baby girl, Prasana, away and converted her to Islam. That happened nine years ago and Indira hasn’t seen her daughter since then.

Indeed, the law of your faith is superior to any human law and if you follow it you must face the consequences, which is the human law, the law of the land. And, if you force your acts of faith on others as “divine justice”, isn’t that a transgression of the rights of others and, really, insensitive cruelty?

Is there any religion which claims that punitive “divine justice” and being cruel “in the name of God” is more righteous than respecting human rights?

Divine law is, no doubt, superior, but there are laws and exhortations in any credible religion which require its followers to never — by force, violence and evil intent — impose them on others. That requires a better understanding and interpretation of the adherents’ religious books, which, sadly, is wanting among those who take the law into their own hands.

With the latest Federal Court ruling, the expectation is that people of different religious faiths and views will abide peacefully under the rule of constitutional law.

 Vasantha Priya’s sacrifice

I must comment on this. It’s heart-breaking that a 14-year-old girl was driven to suicide by a teacher who valued her RM1,600 iphone6 more than the well-being of the student she was supposed to teach.

The Penang schoolgirl was accused of stealing her teacher’s handphone and interrogated and left alone in a room without food and drinks or a toilet break for five hours until she admitted to the offence, which she never did. She was hit by another teacher publicly. The accusing teacher and her husband (I don’t know how he got involved) then took her to her house, confronted her parents, who, then, left the house to “sort things out” with the teacher and her husband.

In the time they were out and having endured all this humiliation, Vasantha Priya hung herself from the air-cond vent with her shawl, leaving behind a note, “I didn’t take your phone, teacher.”

All this over a RM1,600 phone? What kind of people do things like this? That teacher is definitely NOT teaching material. She should never be seen in a classroom.

If the phone was more important to her than handling this girl in the most positive way possible as an educator to get to the root of the problem, she should give up teaching and go into the buying and selling business.

This is blatant bullying. If teachers do it, is it surprising that schoolboys and schoolgirls are resorting to bullying?

Many of the reports on this issue point to the lack of a standard operating procedure (SOP) in dealing with such disciplinary cases. Set up a humane SOP in disciplining students so that it is clear that they are not falsely accused and, if they are found guilty, they should be disciplined in a way that would help them come out of the experience a better person. That should be the educator’s role and purpose.

Now, a girl is dead and it is on the teacher. I wonder if the teacher would have treated the girl in the same way if she were a confident girl who wore designer clothes and was dropped off at school by a parent driving a BMW or Mercedes Benz. I think she wouldn’t have dared. But, Vasantha Priya was timid and the teacher found in the girl’s vulnerability an object to bully.

This has to stop. I hope Vasantha Priya’s death will result in some good so that she did not die in vain. I hope the education ministry will take greater care to select the right teachers in school so that girls and boys of Vasantha Priya’s lot do not come to a humiliating end as she did.

 

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