The Legalities of Deconverting from Islam in Malaysia

We got the following helpful tip from a lawyer of the Malaysian Bar who does not wish to be attributed as long as this knowledge is available to the public. We thank her for her time and free legal advice on the issue.

Dear friends,

This is the situation with regards to Malays.  There were several court decisions with regard to the right to religious freedom.

In Re Susie Teoh, Abdul Malek J seems to suggest that the right to freedom under Article 11 includes the right to choose religion for he said that “right to profess and practice religion of her chosen religion”.

In Daud Mamat, Suriyadi Halim Omar J held that freedom of religion under Article 11 does not include the right to apostate.

The Negeri Sembilan Islamic Religious Administration Enactment carries provision regarding application from persons who want to get out from their Islamic religion. The Syariah Court can hear the application to leave the religion and then would make a declaration that the person has renounced his religion.
Despite that provision, research has shown only Muslim converts have been allowed to leave the religion.  A Malay is much more rare.

Under Syariah law, Malaysians wishing to renounce Islam in order to profess another belief are subject to criminal sanctions, including being sentenced to "rehabilitation." In 1998, after a controversial incident involving a Muslim converting to Christianity, the government stated that "apostates" would not face government punishment as long as they did not defame Islam after their conversion. However, the issue of which court, civil or Syariah, would make the decision on conversions was not clarified. After the 1998 ruling, enforcement of apostasy laws has occurred only occasionally, and almost entirely among Muslims considered to be "deviant." In 1999, the Malaysian State Court ruled that secular courts have no jurisdiction to hear applications by Muslims to change their religion. In May 2007, the Federal Court, Malaysia's Supreme Court, supported this ruling and stated further that Malaysians wishing to convert from Islam to another religion must obtain an order from the Syariah court.

In March 2007, the Court of Appeals upheld a previous Federal Court ruling that allowed Muslims (or recent Muslim converts) to initiate divorce or child custody proceedings against a non-Muslim spouse in Syariah courts. There are also sporadic cases in which provincial or local officials have intervened in family law matters; the most prominent cases involved marriages between Hindus and Muslims. In several other cases, state religious authorities detained and attempted to "rehabilitate" Muslim spouses who sought to renounce Islam or who married non-Muslims in a temple. Such marriages are not legally recognized. In one case, the child resulting from an interfaith union was removed from parental custody, pending "rehabilitation" of the detained Muslim parent.

In 1999, Azlina Jailani, also known as Lina Joy, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, went to court to take "Muslim" off her identity card in order legally marry another Christian. The 1976 Law Reform Act prohibits a Muslim from solemnizing a marriage under civil law with a non-Muslim. Subsequent local court decisions have contended that as an ethnic Malay, Joy's constitutional right to religious freedom was limited by Article 160 of the Constitution, which states that all Malays are Muslims. A lower court hearing the Joy case decided that as a Muslim, her appeal should be decided by Syariah courts. However, Joy refuses to acknowledge the standing of the Syariah court over her case, claiming that Syariah courts are for deciding personal status issues for Muslims. In September 2005, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Syariah court had to settle Joy's appeal to have "Muslim" removed from her identify card. On May 30, 2007, the Federal Court backed the Court of Appeals' decision.

In July 2004, the Federal Court dismissed an appeal by four followers of Ayah Pin seeking a statutory declaration that Sky Kingdom followers have the right to practice the religion of their choice. The Federal Court held that their attempt to renounce Islam did not free them from the jurisdiction of the state Syariah court.

This is where we stand now with regards to changing of ‘Islam’ in your identity card.  Despite the NS Enactment, and the National Registration Department have procedures to that effect, you will face administrative obstacles when you submit your applications. You will need a declaration from the Shariah Court to enable you to do so. This is what I foresee.