February 3, 2007 / 6:02 AM / 13 years ago

Malaysian switched at birth wants to switch religion

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian Muslim man switched at birth in a hospital mix-up wants to change his name after being reunited with his ethnic-Chinese biological family and become a Buddhist.

Sales executive Zulhaidi Omar (C), flanked by his natural parents, father Teo Ma Leong (L) and mother Lim Sai Hak, poses in Johor Bahru, February 2, 2007. Zulhaidi, 29, switched at birth in a hospital mix-up, wants to change his name after being reunited with his ethnic-Chinese biological family and become a Buddhist. REUTERS/New Straits Times Press

In multiracial Malaysia, ethnic Malays, who are mostly Muslim, form a majority of the population of roughly 26 million, while ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians account for about 25 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Sales executive Zulhaidi Omar, 29, was raised in an ethnic Malay family, and discovered his true origins only after a Chinese woman at a supermarket where he worked noticed his features were similar to those of her father, newspapers said.

“The girl who was always looking at me was actually my elder sister who suspected that I was her brother because of my striking resemblance to our father,” the Star newspaper quoted Zulhaidi as telling reporters.

Three visits by the girl and her parents convinced him to take a DNA test that confirmed the ties, he added.

Zulhaidi, who unwittingly spent 20 years just a few miles from his real family, now lives with them in Batu Pahat in southern Johor state. But it took him six months before he began to call his parents “Mum” and “Dad”.

His natural father, Teo Ma Leong, 66, said he had always suspected the fifth of his six children was switched at birth, because the boy had a dark complexion, the Star said.

“A check with the hospital gave us no clues, so we brought him up as one of our own, although we knew our actual son was out there somewhere,” Teo added.

As a child, Zulhaidi said, he was teased about his Chinese-like features and never felt accepted by the family in which he was brought up, so he left them when he was 13.

“My Malay father had left us when I was three,” he said. “My mother remarried, but I could not get along with my stepfather, so I left.”

He waited on tables and worked at a car wash to put himself through school, eventually ending up with a diploma in business administration.

The other changeling, Tian Fa, 29, was brought up by the Teos, married a Chinese woman, and has no intention of seeking out his biological parents, the Star said.

Now Zulhaidi wants to renounce Islam and take a Chinese name.

Whether Muslims can convert to another faith is a tricky legal question in Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, although freedom of worship is a constitutional right.

Ethnic Malays are deemed to be Muslim from birth, but the country’s highest civil court has yet to rule on whether they have the right to convert to another religion.

The family was also contemplating a suit against the Batu Pahat hospital over the mix-up that split and traumatised it, the New Straits Times newspaper added.

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