Malaysian minister says amended citizenship laws won’t render more children stateless

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Malaysian minister says amended citizenship laws won’t render more children stateless Children attend their first day of elementary school in Standard One (Primary One) at a local school, on the start of the new school year in Karak, Pahang state, Malaysia, March 21, 2022.
Mohd. Rasfan/AFP

The Malaysian government is under growing pressure to withdraw some proposed amendments to citizenship laws that rights advocates and legal experts say could leave thousands of children stateless. 

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail on Tuesday refuted these claims, saying that there “would be no chance more kids are going to be stateless” because of the amendments.

He said he was open to being approached by or initiating contact with civil society groups, lawyers, and human rights advocates.

“I have no problem. I can listen to them, but they also have to listen to me, as that is what discussions are about,” he told reporters.

Critics of the proposed amendments, which the Malaysian cabinet agreed to last year, argue that the “regressive” changes will make gaining citizenship a lot more difficult. 

This would be especially true, they say, for abandoned infants, children born to unmarried parents, and the children of permanent residents or stateless ones, creating a cycle of statelessness for generations.

According to Saifuddin, the changes are being criticized because they would be successful.

“Criticism out there is that because of these changes, there’s no chance, more kids [are] going to be stateless,” the Malay Mail news outlet quoted him as saying.

He defended the changes last week as well, saying they were necessary for national reasons, because the current provisions made it too easy for non-Malaysian couples to abandon their children at hospitals.

“There have been cases where foreign nationals, along with their foreign partners, clearly not citizens, when a baby is born in the hospital, they just leave, and the hospital bills are left unpaid,” he said last week. 

“The unpaid hospital bills by these foreigners amount to hundreds of millions of ringgit. … We have the figures. … They know under Section 19B, children born here can immediately obtain citizenship [under existing law].”

‘War’ against children

The proposed change to that part of the citizenship law is one that lawyers and rights groups are most up in arms about.

Because under the proposed new regulations, foundlings (abandoned infants) who currently get automatic citizenship, will stop having that privilege and will have to go through a registration process which gives the home ministry discretionary power, said Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Malaysian Bar Council president.

“The current government is going to ‘war’ against children with its plan to push forward with changes to citizenship laws in the Federal Constitution as it would remove the existing rights of such children to be Malaysian citizens,” she told BenarNews.  

The proposal is to replace citizenship “by operation of law” with citizenship by “registration,” which will give the ministry full discretion on who will be given Malaysian citizenship.

Rohingya refugees children living in Malaysia watch others slaughtering cows during the Eid al-Adha festival in Kuala Lumpur, July 10, 2022. [Mohd. Rasfan/AFP]

Currently, according to a 1963 law, babies who are born in Malaysia and do not acquire citizenship of any other country within one year of birth are automatically considered Malaysians by “operation of law,” thus protecting them from statelessness.

With the change, not only does an individual have to obtain citizenship by registration, they also need to show a birth certificate or some proof that one of their parents is a Malaysian citizen. Where is a person who was abandoned as an infant supposed to get such proof from, activists ask. 

“When they say they are going to remove the words ‘operation of law,’ they are taking away a fundamental provision in our citizenship laws. What they are saying is, ‘I will decide, our office will decide who becomes a citizen,’” Ambiga told reporters. 

If passed, this amendment will also apply to children born to unmarried parents, children of permanent residents, and stateless children from both Bumiputera and indigenous communities.

‘I feel helpless’

Take the case of Seri Mulyati, a Malaysian-born woman of Indonesian descent. 

Her parents have permanent resident status and subsequently were granted citizenship. All her siblings, too, have been granted citizenship. But Seri remains uncertain about her status.

For almost four decades, 41-year-old Seri has sought Malaysian citizenship but was only granted Permanent Resident (PR) status and a temporary Malaysian identification card. Then, the temporary ID card was also retracted when she tried to renew it, with officials saying it was “ineligible.”

“I have been fighting for this my whole life. It definitely has taken a toll on my mental health, because I feel helpless,” Seri told BenarNews.

Seri said she felt befuddled. She was born in Malaysia in 1983. Both of her parents are Indonesians who were granted permanent residency and later given Malaysian citizenship. 

According to “by operation of law,” Seri should have got automatic citizenship.

She said this shows that even before these proposed amendments, many like her have borne the brunt of the unfair treatment by government officials.

If the amendments are passed –  they have yet to be presented in Parliament –  Seri believes they will exacerbate the generational problems of stateless people in Malaysia. 

Last week, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) said that the Home Ministry had not provided any empirical data on why these amendments were needed.

On the plus side, one amendment will bring some cheer. It is the amendment that will allow both mothers and fathers with foreign spouses to pass on their Malaysian citizenship to their children born overseas.

Previously, only Malaysian fathers with foreign spouses and children born abroad could get Malaysian citizenship. Family Frontiers, an advocacy group, had sued the government over the gender bias in the law and won. But in 2022, the appellate court overturned the ruling after a legal challenge by the government.

“[Now] we remain very concerned about the other regressive amendments that will strip away constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights for vulnerable groups of children,” Suriani Kempe of Family Frontiers, told BenarNews. 

Suriani said that despite repeated attempts to discuss concerns with relevant officials, they were denied a meaningful discussion on the proposed amendments by the Malaysian government.

“Because of what we have seen in our work, we can say that the regressive amendments will not solve the occurrence of statelessness; instead, it will exacerbate the problem, creating a new class of invisible stateless persons in Malaysia,” she said.

Malaysian mothers wait at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya for a verdict in their lawsuit seeking the right to citizenship for their children, who were born overseas to foreign fathers, Aug. 5, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Stateless persons or non-citizens are usually barred from attending government schools or receiving public healthcare benefits. Many cannot even get a proper job, Surianin said. 

In 2019, a study conducted by lawmaker Wong Chen revealed that Malaysia suffers an annual loss of an estimated 6 billion ringgit (U.S. $1.3 billion) due to the denial of citizenship to around 300,000 individuals born in Malaysia or to Malaysian parents. 

This is on the assumption that half of the stateless population, or 150,000 people, faces unequal job opportunities and achieves only half of the average annual productivity value of 81,039 ringgit (U.S. $17,122). 

The government cannot simply remove the constitutional safeguard for these children, said Maalini Ramalo, of the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas. 

“The government is supposed to address statelessness in the country, including children born out of wedlock who cannot acquire their father's citizenship because Malaysia discriminates against children born out of wedlock,” Maalini told BenarNews.

“Therefore, if these amendments go through, we will have a significant number of stateless individuals within this group, especially if their constitutional safeguard disappears.”


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