Malaysian Mothers Win Landmark Case against Discriminatory Citizenship Law

Hadi Azmi and Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
2021-09-09
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Malaysian Mothers Win Landmark Case against Discriminatory Citizenship Law Plaintiffs in a case challenging a law preventing Malaysian women from passing their citizenship on to their children born overseas pose outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court, April 27, 2021.
Family Frontiers Handout Photo/AFP

Six Malaysian mothers won a landmark case on Thursday when a court ruled that the country’s citizenship laws discriminate against them by preventing them from passing their nationality to their children born abroad. 

The women had challenged a clause in the constitution implying that a child born overseas to a Malaysian woman with a foreign spouse does not get Malaysian citizenship. 

A Kuala Lumpur High Court judge found that they were suffering gender discrimination, because the same rule does not apply to men in a similar situation.

“The grievances of the plaintiffs are real … the discrimination is apparent,” Justice Akhtar Tahir said, reading out his ruling during a video conference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Malaysian constitution states that “every person born outside the Federation … whose father is a citizen at the time of the birth” is a citizen “by operation of law.”  The word “father” must be read and understood to include mothers as well, Tahir said. 

The full text of his judgment has not yet been made public. 

Malaysia was one of about two dozen countries that do not give mothers and fathers equal rights under the country’s citizenship law.

It was not immediately known if the government would appeal the decision, as the prosecution team was not reachable for comment.

Elated plaintiffs shed tears

Myra Eliza Mohd Danil, one of the six plaintiffs, said she was elated by the ruling. 

“When the judge announced his decision, we all shed tears. We had been waiting for this for so long,” she told BenarNews. “I can’t wait to go home to tell my daughter that she is also Malaysian, just like her brother.”

Myra is married to a Zambian man whom she met while studying at a university in Malaysia. 

Her daughter did not receive Malaysian citizenship after being born in Zambia – unlike her son, born in Malaysia a couple of years later.

Family Frontiers, a family support group that spearheaded the legal effort, said the verdict was a momentous occasion for their cause.

“We are so thankful for this outcome. This is a huge relief for affected mothers because this judgment applies not just to the mothers directly involved in the case as plaintiffs, but to all Malaysian mothers who are similarly affected,” said Suri Kempe, president of Family Frontiers. 

She said that the judgment recognizes Malaysian women’s equality and advances Malaysia to be more egalitarian and just.

With the help of Family Frontiers, the plaintiffs filed the legal suit in December 2020. 

The court had previously thrown out an application from the attorney general to dismiss the case on grounds that it was frivolous.

“In this case, there is clear discrimination against the parents of the child, and there is no justification for it. This case is not something frivolous, vexatious, and an abuse of the process of the Court,” Justice Akhtar had ruled in May, deciding to hear the case. 

Minister, lawyers applaud the decision

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the judge arrived at his decision by ruling that the constitutional articles on citizenship must be read in harmony with Article 8(2) of the federal constitution. The article was amended in 2001 to include a prohibition of gender discrimination. 

Joshua Andran, part of the plaintiff’s legal team, applauded the judge’s decision to interpret the constitution in light of present-day ideals. 

“In this day and age, discrimination against women, especially in such a fundamental issue as citizenship, cannot be allowed to continue,” he said, adding that the decision illustrates the country’s effort to promote true equality between Malaysian men and women. 

“Mothers, and women as a whole, have been owed this for nearly 20 years, and today they have been honored not just by words and gestures but in pragmatic terms,” Joshua told BenarNews. 

Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the decision reflected the interpretation of the constitution in totality instead of clause by clause. 

“I believe that each provision of the articles in the Federal Constitution could not be read in isolation. It must be read together with other related provisions governing the related subject matter,” Wan Junaidi told BenarNews. 

“Judges must be brave enough to introduce that sense and harmony. Any discriminatory provision ought to be interpreted harmoniously with that fundamental principle, and any inconsistency ought to be removed by harmonious interpretation,” the minister said. 

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