Malaysian Islamic leaders allow Buddhist to bury his wife according to Christian rites

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – After 18 harrowing days of battling with Islamic religious authorities, Ngiam Tee Kong on Friday finally won the right to bury his wife according to Christian rites. She died December 30.

 High Court Judge Lau Bee Lan made the decision to allow the Christian burial of Wong Sau Lan after Islamic religious authorities from the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Council (MAIWP) dropped the claim to her body, saying that her alleged conversion to Islam was not in accordance with sharia (Islamic law).

Zulkifli Che Yong, who represented MAIWP, told the Sun newspaper that the Council decided to drop the claim after taking into account the views of the mufti (Muslim clergy) and testimony from traditional healer Siti Aishah Ismail, from whom Wong had sought treatment. Ngiam’s tussle with Islamic religious authorities began when his wife died of kidney failure at the Malaysian National University Hospital (Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia).

Following her death, MAIWP directed the hospital through the police not to release her body to her husband unless he admitted that she had converted to Islam on December 24, 2007. The Islamic religious authority claimed that Wong had converted to Islam by reciting Arabic verses during a session with a traditional healer a week earlier. Ngiam, who is a Buddhist, challenged the claim and decided to take the matter to court. Ngiam maintained that his wife was a Christian and was baptized in November 2007.  

Following the court decision, Ngiam’s lawyer, Karpal Singh, told reporters outside the courtroom that the body would be cremated according to Christian rites after a two-day wake. Though relieved at the outcome of the court case, Ngiam has indicated that he will file a suit against MAIWP for negligence. His lawyer, Singh, underscored the seriousness of the case.

“It [MAIWP] must ascertain that any conversion is [made] according to Islamic law, not snatch a body and refuse to release it on the ground there is a conversion when there is not one, and later admitting that there was no lawful conversion,” he said. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director of Kairos Research Centre, called for Islamic religious authorities to be more sensitive to those in grief. “There have been too many cases where families of the deceased have felt traumatized by such hasty actions,” he told Compass.

In the last few years, there have been at least two other cases in which families of the deceased have had to battle Islamic religious authorities in court over the right to bury their loved ones. In December 2006, the widow of Rayappan Anthony was involved in a nine-day dispute with Islamic religious authorities over whether her husband was a Muslim at the point of death before she was granted the right to bury him as a Christian.  In 2005, the widow of Mount Everest climber Moorthy Maniam lost the legal battle to bury her husband as a Hindu when the civil court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over decisions made by the sharia court. Islamic religious authorities gave her husband a Muslim burial.

-Jasmine Kay, Compass Direct News

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