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Home » Malaysia’s human rights commission to seek royal support to block

Malaysia’s human rights commission to seek royal support to block

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Critics warn the citizenship law changes could worsen the statelessness problem for those with genuine ties to Malaysia.

ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

KUALA LUMPUR – The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia is seeking royal support to block new citizenship laws that it says will render more people in the country stateless.

The commission, commonly referred to by its Malay-language acronym Suhakam, is planning to submit a memorandum to the Conference of Rulers by July 16, outlining its objections to proposed legal amendments which have been described as “regressive” and “cruel” by critics.

Amendments to the Federal Constitution related to citizenship matters must have the consent of the Conference of Rulers – a council comprising the nine rulers of the Malay states of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Perlis, Terengganu, Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Johor and Perak, and the governors of the other four states, Penang, Melaka, Sabah and Sarawak.

One of the changes proposed by the Anwar administration is a long-awaited amendment to finally automatically confer citizenship to children born overseas to Malaysian mothers. But the new law will not be applied retrospectively, rendering it ineffective for those already born to Malaysian mothers outside the country.

Currently, only children born to Malaysian fathers abroad are automatically conferred Malaysian citizenship.

“We want it to be retrospective,” Suhakam commissioner Ragunath Kesavan, a former Malaysian Bar president, told The Straits Times.

Other proposed amendments are aimed at making it tougher to obtain citizenship, including lowering the age limit of childhood citizenship applications from 21 to 18, removing automatic citizenship for children of permanent residents born in the country, and stripping foreign wives of citizenship if the marriage is dissolved within two years of them becoming Malaysian.

“The amendments are the most regressive constitutional amendments ever brought by any government in Malaysia. They take away the rights of a child,” Mr Kesavan told a rights forum on July 5.

As for foreign wives, he pointed out that people taking up Malaysian citizenship have to give up citizenship in other countries, as holding dual citizenship is not permitted for Malaysians.

“In the first two years of marriage, if you are abused by your husband, you cannot walk out of that relationship,” he said.

“This is why we need to oppose the constitutional amendments.”

Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution previously came under fire for reportedly saying in March that foreign migrants were giving birth in hospitals and leaving their babies behind, in an attempt to explain the reasons behind the amendments.

He also cited the presence of 3.5 million foreigners in a country of about 34 million as one of the reasons to stop automatic citizenship for the children of permanent residents.

Activists point out that most stateless children are not necessarily foreigners, but those who were born in Malaysia and whose parents neglected to register their births or were unable to, for example, because they were born out of wedlock. They warned that the changes could worsen the statelessness problem for those with genuine ties to Malaysia.

“I faced a lot of difficulties throughout my life as a stateless person,” Ms Joeann told ST, declining to use her full name to protect her privacy. “I could not get an identity card or open a bank account. I could not get a driving licence. I could not travel as I did not have travel documents.”

The 24-year-old was adopted as a baby by a Malaysian couple and does not know who her biological parents are.

Applying for citizenship for stateless children is often a complex matter in Malaysia, fraught with bureaucracy, and can take years.

Ms Joeann finally succeeded in obtaining citizenship in 2023 after her third application.

Her experience reflects what most stateless individuals in Malaysia go through.

In addition, stateless children are often deprived of the right to attend public schools and denied free medical care. As adults, they face difficulties in finding jobs, without proper qualifications.

Datuk Hartini Zainudin, co-founder of the Yayasan Chow Kit non-governmental organisation, who has been vocal about the proposed citizenship amendments, said that the changes would affect her three adopted children who were abandoned as babies.

“I have three kids now who are already 18. Under the new amendments, they are not going to qualify to even apply for citizenship,” she told ST.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition leads the multi-coalition government and has long campaigned on a platform of progressive reforms. Its 2022 election manifesto made several pledges to reduce the problem of statelessness.

According to statistics from the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas non-profit organisation, between 2016 and June 2023, there were 16,392 stateless people in Peninsular Malaysia.

These include individuals who came to, or were born in, Malaysia prior to the country’s independence; children born out of legal wedlock to Malaysian fathers; abandoned babies; and stateless adopted children.

Over half, or 9,392, remain stateless at present, with the majority, or 8,171, of them born out of wedlock or being children adopted by Malaysians.

Malaysian lawmakers had in March deferred voting on the controversial Bill in response to a public furore that could have seen the Anwar administration fail to secure a two-thirds majority for the Bill to pass.

The proposed amendments may go before Parliament during the current sitting, which ends on July 18.

“We would like the government to reconsider the regressive proposed amendments. Any amendment should be carefully scrutinised and thought through. It is very important that there is maximum evaluation with stakeholders,” Mr Kesavan told ST.  

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