Sacrificing One Child to Save the Other

At the Home Ministry Office

On Thursday, March 21st, along with a delegation from Barisan Nasional (BN), I participated in a Sesi Libat Urus with the Home Ministry and the Unity Government Secretariat regarding the proposed constitutional amendments affecting citizenship rules, as part of the Government’s endeavors to engage stakeholders in this matter.

Along with representatives from the other political parties, we were given an overview on why preventing certain sectors of society, such as foundlings, inland foreigners and children of PR holders are crucial for ‘national security’ and in order to not let them have a slice of the welfare & economic pie that should be going to more deserving Malaysian children.

But less than 12 hours later, we were greeted with news reports stating that the Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail has decided not to amend Section 1(e) of Part II & Section 19B of Part III of the Second Schedule of the Federal Constitution after all. This means that the status quo for the citizenship rules concerning Malaysian-born stateless children (such as in some Orang Asli communities), abandoned children and foundlings will remain and they will still be able to quality automatically for Malaysian citizenship.

Okay. Let’s unpack this: as explained before in my previous article to the Star (“Beyond International Women’s Day: A look at Malaysia’s legal milestones for gender equality” published 14th March 2024), there is universal support in the country when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced plans to table legal amendments that would replace the term “whose father” with “parents or at least one of the parents” in the Federal Constitution’s Second Schedule, which would resolve the quandary faced by Malaysian mothers married to non-Malaysian men who gave birth overseas. Discussing this has become trite: everybody who has been following Family Frontiers’ courageous crusade in the Courts will know this by now.

But when the proposed amendments came bundled with others that raised concerns, such as those related to stateless children, it complicated matters significantly. Very briefly, they are:

(i) Amendments to the qualifications specified in Sections 1 (b) and (c) of Part II of the Second Schedule pertaining to Article 14(1)(b) of the Constitution will resolve the issue of citizenship by “operation of law” of children born to Malaysian mothers abroad, by changing the word “father” to “at least one of the parents”.

(ii) Amendments to Section 19B of Part III of the Second Schedule will change citizenship by “operation of law” to citizenship by “registration” for foundlings and abandoned children will no longer be entitled to automatic citizenship. They will have to go through the same long anxious wait that was previously experienced by children of Malaysian mother & non-Malaysian fathers, the very problem solved by the first amendment above.

(iii) Amendments to Section 1 (e) of Part II of the Second Schedule will change citizenship by “operation of law” to citizenship by “registration” for stateless children, children born out of wedlock, adopted and abandoned stateless children; and in some cases the children of Orang Asli communities.

(iv) Amendments to Section 1 (a) of Part II of the Second Schedule will change citizenship by “operation of law” to citizenship by “registration” for children of parents who are permanent residents (red identity card holders).

(v) Amendments to Article 26(2) of the Constitution will replace the words “date of marriage” with “date of obtaining citizenship”. As a result, the Malaysian citizenship of a foreign wife of a Malaysian man will be revoked if their marriage is dissolved less than two years after the wife is granted Malaysian citizenship. This will pose a danger where these foreign wives will be forced to stay in a violent or abusing marriage, having to endure abuse, in order not to risk losing their Malaysian citizenship.

(vi) Amendments to Article 15A of the Constitution will amend and reduce the age limit from “21 years” to “18 years” for the purpose of citizenship registration. In effect, stateless child applicants will now have less time to apply for citizenship. If they fail and are too late, they will have to remain stateless forever, and appeals could take years.

As the Minister had just announced that the status quo for the citizenship rules for Malaysian-born stateless children, abandoned children & foundlings will remain, Items (ii) and (iii) above are now gone. The rationale behind the initial proposal to amend these previously uncontroversial provisions remains unclear to this day. Either way, we will give credit where credit is due. Axing these two proposed amendments is a good thing, and we applaud that.

Item (i) is safe too, thank goodness for that. During our Sesi Libat Urus, we brought up this issue, and was given the assurance that even if Family Frontiers loses their Federal Court appeal this June, Cabinet is still committed to push through the amendment guaranteeing Malaysian mothers equal rights with Malaysian fathers who had children born overseas to one non-citizen parent. We are putting this in print now for posterity in case of a future U-turn.

However, items (iv), (v) and (vi) will still be tabled in Parliament on Monday, 25th March. And this is where things get more problematic:

Item (iv) means children of parents who are red identity card holders, usually hardcore poor, will still lose the right to automatically qualify for citizenship.

This is why some netizens’ comments that this is akin to “bartering” away the rights of one group of children for another group of children keeps coming back to my mind.

Do they really think that they can appease the public by sacrificing one child for another?

If the government thinks that this amendment is necessary for East Malaysian states because of the huge number of Inland Foreigners there, then they should come up with restrictions over there, and not a blanket that affects other states, where the situation and dynamics are totally different. For instance, Sabah has schemes such as the Kad Burung Burung and Sabah Temporary Pass which helps holders get education and healthcare, of which other states have no equivalent to, so the change in law will be felt differently.

We would also like to highlight that during the parliamentary session on March 21st, the Minister attributed the need for this amendment to Singaporean PRs attempting to secure Malaysian citizenship for their children. This assertion seems highly improbable, particularly considering the prevailing economic conditions. It is both absurd and ironic to hear the Minister, who is himself Singaporean-born, making such frivolous excuses.

The proposed amendment to Item (V) has raised concerns about potential consequences for foreign spouses seeking Malaysian citizenship. The requirement to remain married for two years could place them in a vulnerable position. The government’s stated goal of curbing “marriages of convenience” is understandable. However, without clear evidence of the prevalence of such cases or existing legal shortcomings, the proposed amendment seems like an overly broad measure.

I would like to put it to print once again (in case of another u-turn) that at the Sesi Libat Urus we were given the assurance that in cases of foreign wives seeking divorce due to domestic abuse/violence, they will not be stripped of their Malaysian citizenships, but again this is not written in any of the amendments, and will probably be just “secara dasar” which means in the end it will probably depend on arbitrary or discretionary decisions of Ministry officials.

Item (VI), shortening the time window for childhood citizenship applications, may seem trivial at first but it actually has devastating effects too. Imagine if you are a 19 year old applicant, thinking you still have time until the age of 21 to apply for citizenship: but once the law is passed, you are actually one year too late.

And to top it all off, it seems that there are no intentions to make the amendments retrospective. When we raised this during the Sesi Libat Urus, we were told that preexisting or pending applications will merely be expedited, but the new rules will not apply to them. So there is still no reprieve for a large swathe of the vulnerable in Malaysia, despite the changes in the law.

I urge the Home Ministry to reconsider the current timeline for the proposed amendments. Three months is too limited for thorough research and refinement. A more inclusive approach, involving open dialogue with stakeholders like Family Frontiers, would be invaluable in ensuring these amendments deliver positive outcomes for mothers, children, and the Malaysian society as a whole.

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