In the roll call of Christians arrested in Malaysia for their faith, women were not exempted. Neither were the lawyers representing them.
Tongiah bte Jumali, known as Azie to her friends, converted to Christianity, was baptised and joined in a church somewhere in Johor. She fell in love with Wong Yen Fooi, a church member, and both of them decided to get married.
Aware of the obstacles they would face, Azie and Wong decided to go to Singapore to be married. They obtained a certificate of marriage from Singapore. Upon their return to Malaysia, they applied to the Registry of Civil Marriages for re-registration of their foreign marriage. It took a year but eventually a Malaysian certificate of marriage was also issued to Azie and Wong.
They then moved to Johor Bahru and set up house in a suburb outside of Johor Bahru. One night in 1997, enforcement officers from Jabatan Agama Islam Johor (JAIJ) forced their way into their home. Azie was arrested by JAIJ and taken to a police station. At the end of one week, Azie was released on bail and was charged in the Syariah Court for khalwat.
Khalwat is the Islamic offence of “close proximity” to cover extra-marital sex by unmarried Muslim couples. Why was Azie charged for something like that? Very simple. JAIJ refused to recognise Azie’s conversion out of Islam. They also refused to recognise her marriage to Wong. As far as they were concerned, Azie and Wong were not married to each other. Therefore, Azie’s cohabitation with Wong was illicit and a breach of Islamic regulations.
I filed a civil suit for Azie and Wong in the High Court in Muar, Johor claiming for damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment for Azie and damages for loss of consortium for Wong. Their suit was founded on the state and federal government’s violation of Azie’s constitutional right to embrace any religion of her choice under Article 11 of the Constitution.
The suit was thrown out in 2003 by Justice Jeffrey Tan on the technical objection raised by JAIJ that the issue of whether a Muslim had converted out of Islam or not fell under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court and thus the High Court had no powers to hear the case. Her appeal to the Court of Appeal was similarly dismissed in 2008. The khalwat charge against Azie in the Syariah Court was never proceeded with up to this day.
Azie has 2 children from her marriage to Wong. It was a nightmare each time to register her newly born children as non-Muslims. I have not seen them for over 10 years and I pray that God is taking good care of them.
The Nor’ Aishah case
Nor’ Aishah binti Bokhari, came from the small town of Batu Pahat in Johor. She worked as an executive in Citibank, Kuala Lumpur and she fell in love with her colleague, Arnold Lee, a Roman Catholic of mixed Chinese and Portuguese parentage. They decided to marry. In most cases, the non-Muslim would convert to Islam in order to marry the Muslim partner. However, Nor’ Aishah decided to follow the faith of her intended husband.
Nor’ Aishah’s parents were extremely upset about her plans to convert to Christianity and to marry Arnold. A family meeting was arranged at the office of her lawyer, Mr Leonard Teoh. At the appointed time, Nor’ Aishah together with Arnold Lee and their lawyer, Leonard Teoh, waited outside the front entrance of the AMODA Building at Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur. Nor’ Aishah saw her parents approaching. As she walked out to meet them, a car swerved in and stopped beside her. Some men jumped out and bundled Nor’ Aishah into the car. Some police constables then appeared out of nowhere and stopped Arnold and Leonard from interfering with the abduction.
Nor’ Aishah was taken to her uncle’s house in Bandar Sunway. Her uncle was the police chief at the Dang Wangi Police Station. Soon after that, she was taken in a car to her parents’ home in Batu Pahat and locked up against her will.
A few days later, Leonard Teoh asked me to take legal action to free Nor’ Aishah. However, I asked Leonard how can I be appointed by someone whom I have never met or talked to? A few days later, Leonard and Arnold came to see me. Arnold said he managed to call Nor’ Aishah and she had left a message for me. He held up his mobile phone and I heard this recording: “I appoint Mr Lee Min Choon as my lawyer to represent me in an application to court to free me.”
With this, I filed an application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in Nor’ Aishah’s name. I cited her parents and her uncle as defendants. Very soon, we were in court. As with most court cases in those days, there were postponements to enable the defendants to file their reply.
On the fortieth day of her detention, Nor’ Aishah managed to escape from her parent’s home. Arnold was waiting in a car outside. They fled to Singapore and from there caught a flight out to an unknown destination. Nor’ Aishah’s parents promptly reported that Nor’ Aishah had been kidnapped by Arnold Lee.
A few days later, Leonard was arrested by the police and taken to the Batu Pahat Police Station as the kidnap report was lodged there and investigations were being carried out by officers from that police station. The next day, Leonard was produced before the Magistrate in Batu Pahat who ordered Leonard to be detained for four days to facilitate police investigations.
I then wrote to the High Court in Johor Bahru complaining that Leonard had been wrongly detained. Leonard was Nor’ Aishah’s lawyer. How can a lawyer be suspected of kidnapping his own client? I asked the High Court to exercise its powers of revision to overturn the Magistrate’s order and to free Leonard.
A few days later, I got a call from the court at 11.30 am informing me that the Judge will hear my application for revision at 2.30 pm. I told the registrar that there is no way I can get from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru by 2.30 pm. The registrar answered that the Judge was free to hear my application only on that day and only between 2.30-4.00 pm. In spite of the impossible task, I told the registrar that I will be there. I called my friend, Tan Poh Lai, a lawyer in Johor Bahru and asked her to attend court for me at 2.30 pm to delay the start of the case and if it was not possible, to do whatever she can to argue the case. Poh Lai, a former deputy public prosecutor, is the youngest daughter of the late opposition leader, Dr Tan Chee Khoon.
I walked into court at 3.00 pm and saw Poh Lai in the midst of arguments before Justice Abdul Malik Ishak. It was a magnificent struggle by Poh Lai given the circumstances and I saw no need to intervene. At 3.30 pm, the Judge decided that there was no justification for him to revise the Magistrate’s order.
The next day, we were at Batu Pahat Magistrate’s Court as Leonard’s 4-day detention expires that day. If the police wanted to detain him further, they would have to produce him before the Magistrate to obtain a further order for detention. We waited the whole day for Leonard to appear. The Police finally brought him to court at 4.00 pm. The Police requested for another ten days of detention. Poh Lai again led the arguments. At the end of the day, the Magistrate compromised. He ordered a detention of 7 days.
Three days later, I got a call from Leonard that he had been released by the Police. Leonard was never charged for kidnapping Nor’ Aishah.
This was the only case I have ever done where I never met or spoke with my client. Rumour has it that the couple eventually married and settled down in a Western country. They will never return to Malaysia. God bless you, Nor’ Aishah and Arnold, wherever you are.