Yawning Bread. February 2007

Breeding intolerance




"Oh dear, smokers," I said.

"You shouldn't say 'Oh my God!' " she said.

Apostasy is a crime.

* * * * *

Yesterday, my sister and I took my father to the National University Hospital for a scheduled appointment. At one point, she and I were waiting in the corridor while my father was in the treatment room being attended to by a doctor and 2 nurses.

"We'll let you know when we are finished," one of the nurses had told us. "Then you can come in."

My sister and I chatted while we waited. We had long since run out of reading material, having been at the hospital for 5 hours since we arrived. Why 5 hours is another story, though I should say it isn't untypical.

At one point in our conversation -- and I can't even remember what we were talking about, it was probably quite inconsequential -- I exclaimed, "Oh my God! That's going to be another problem." Just at that very moment, the treatment room door opened and one of the nurses poked her head out to say they were done and we could go in.

So we went in. As I sidled past her through the doorway, the nurse said to me, "You shouldn't say, 'Oh my God!' "

"Why, not?" I shot back, my jaw inches from her face. "It's just an expression. I use it all the time."

Fortunately for her, she didn't say anything more, for I had more ammunition at the ready. I know the type. They would silence everybody else around them who might say anything contrary to their religious beliefs, who from nowhere would suddenly decide that the merest utter of the three letters G O D in anything but the most sacred context -- sacred in their way and no other -- would offend them and their deity. Their hurt and their beliefs must ride paramount over everybody else's freedom, including our freedom of speech. History must be rewritten. A few centuries of English usage of "Oh my God!" must be extinguished. Their professional responsibility, dealing with patients from all faiths in a secular workplace, be damned.

* * * * *

In November 2002, Malaysian Dr Jeyaganesh C Mogarajah converted from Hinduism to Islam without informing his wife Shamala Sathiyaseelan. A week later, he had both his sons, aged 3 and 2, similarly converted, again without her knowledge or consent [1].

The mother, still unaware that the father had converted the 2 children, left the matrimonial home and filed an application in the Malaysian High Court for custody, care and control of the 2 boys. She obtained an interim order in her favour (17 April 2003). However, the father had moved more quickly, obtaining in January 2003 from the Malaysian Syariah Court [2] an order giving him custody of the 2 boys.

It wasn't long before Shamala had to apply to High Court when Jeyaganesh failed to return the 2 sons to her. The High Court ruled in her favour, saying the custody order issued by the Syariah Court "did not change the interim civil court order". Instead, the civil court's order should be binding on the husband since they had both been Hindu at the time of their marriage.

In July 2004 the High Court confirmed that Shamala would get care and control of her sons. Her husband would share legal custody, have access to the boys and have a duty of financial maintenance. But the court chose not to give a decision on her application for a ruling that the conversion of her 2 sons were null and void since she was their co-parent, and had not agreed to it. The court said that its scope did not include nullifying conversions, and that the Syariah Court was the only qualified forum to determine the status of the 2 minors, notwithstanding the fact that the Hindu woman had no right of audience before that forum.

Moreover, the Syariah Court is there to apply Islamic shariah law, and thus cannot condone apostasy. But would reversing an improper conversion be apostasy? Was that conversion properly done in the first place? On the other hand, even if it hadn't been properly done, the Islamic court could still insist that the 2 young boys are now Muslims and that to reverse even an improper conversion would mean taking 2 more souls away from Allah. Does one expect an Islamic court to do that?

Perhaps mindful of this, the High Court judge, in awarding care and control to the mother, made it subject to the caveat that the mother would lose the right to care and control if she "influence[d] the children’s present religious (i.e. Muslim) beliefs, for example teaching them the articles of her faith and making them eat pork." The rationale given was that the civil court "cannot run away from the fact that the two infant children are now muallaf" (converts to Islam).

Meanwhile, the civil court considers the marriage still valid, as neither party has filed for divorce. Ahmad Maher Haji Abdul Manan, director of the Negri Sembilan [3] Islamic Department agreed that the marriage was not automatically nullified because of the conversion, but "if the spouse chooses not to convert, the couple can no longer live together as husband and wife because they would be of different faiths." [4] Which means what?

All these matters are now under appeal by both sides.

This mess is largely due to the fact that Malaysia has two parallel legal systems: one secular and inherited from the British, and the other religious. By its very definition, shariah law would discriminate against non-Muslims, yet all too often, non-Muslims and ex-Muslims wanting to formally leave the religion (for example in the case of Lina Joy, another pending controversy [5]) have to wrestle with it.

Furthermore, the boundary between the two jurisdictions is unclear, and people tend to go "jurisdiction-shopping", using their preferred law to get what they want.

* * * * *


That, far from resolving conflicts in a fair way, the law can breed unreasonable intolerance is something many of us seldom realise. We see justice as some kind of irreproachable ideal, and law as the means to that ideal. Then somehow along the way, we think of law as irreproachable too, when in fact it can be full of bias in the way it has been drafted. Ignoring human fallibility, we take the law's edicts as unquestionably right, and when it suits us, we draw from its words a righteousness to puff up our own behaviour.

Instead of being tolerant and reasonable towards others, we, girded by the law's admonitions, turn intransigient.

And that day, along South Bridge Road, I found myself behaving badly too.

My friend and I were at a bus stop (pictured above), one of the few in Singapore without a bus shelter, the space between the road and the buildings' frontage being too narrow to accommodate one.

There were a few other persons at the bus stop already.

"Oh dear, smokers," I said to my friend as a whiff of tobacco came my way.

He caught my drift. "Ya, lor, supposed to be illegal to smoke at a bus stop," he muttered. It's been an offence since July 2006.

But in the case of a bus stop without a bus shelter, where does the "bus stop" begin and end? How far must one be away from the pole and signboards to be "outside" the "bus stop"?

It was not as if the smoker or we ourselves were hugging the pole. We were all about 2 metres from it, under the green awning, but it didn't stop us from believing that we were in the right and the smoker was in the wrong. It didn't stop us from insisting on standing our ground and expecting him to do the moving. We had the law on our side, didn't we?

I'll honestly fess up here that one half of me was behaving unreasonably, when prior to the ban I would have just shifted a few more metres away to avoid his smoke without much thought. Fortunately, there was another half of me. It was disengaged and able to see my behaviour for what it was -- intolerant righteousness. After a few seconds, may Allah bless my soul, the latter half won, and I moved myself (and my equally indignant friend had to follow along).

* * * * *

The same effects can be seen from the presence of anti-gay laws. They give people reason to express their intolerance and act accordingly.

Arguments that "the laws are hardly ever enforced" do not excuse them. The mere existence of the laws have consequential psychological effects on individuals and groups just as the smoking ban briefly turned me intolerant.

In fact, such an argument belies the truth. If the actual implementation is all that matters, and the claim is made that the laws are not enforced, then do away with them. The very fact that non-enforcement is used to justify the continued existence of the laws, tells us that the continued existence is recognised and desired for its effects: to give cause to self-righteous intolerance, to justify discrimination, to defend unreasonable treatment of gay people. 

© Yawning Bread 


Last year, a study was reported, concerning a small town in Europe (or was it Canada?) where they removed traffic lights from all junctions. The police found that drivers drove with more care and behaved more courteously towards other drivers as a result.

The reverse conclusion from this would be that when people felt they had a legal "right of way", they behaved with less consideration for others.









  1. For more about this case, see Whose child, an article (July 2006) in Sun2Surf, a law paper, Malaysia's family law: Custody and religion, by Foo Yet Ngo and a Wikipedia article, Status of religious freedom in Malaysia  
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  2. Normally, I would use English spelling and spell it as "shariah". However, in Malaysia the proper name of the court is "Syariah Court" using Malay spelling. Hence, in this essay, where I refer to the court by its proper name, I will spell is as "Syariah", but otherwise I use the English spelling "shariah".
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  3. Negri Sembilan is one of the states of Malaysia. 
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  4. Source: Whose child, 17 July 2004, www.sun2surf.com 
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  5. See an article in the International Herald Tribune, 24 August 2006, Once Muslim, now mired in Malaysia's courts  
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