Malaysian cabinet agrees to amend citizenship law seen as discriminatory towards women

Ili Shazwani and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian cabinet agrees to amend citizenship law seen as discriminatory towards women Mothers with their children wait for a court ruling on a citizenship issue at the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, Malaysia Aug. 5, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s cabinet has agreed to amend the constitution so children born to Malaysian mothers with foreign fathers can be granted citizenship, a right thus far only granted to Malaysian fathers, a ministerial statement said Saturday.

The decision is in line with Anwar’s election campaign promise, although a two-thirds majority in parliament has to agree to the amendment – the PM claims the support of at least that many lawmakers.

Malaysia is one of about two dozen countries that does not give mothers and fathers equal citizenship rights under the law.

The amendment to the law would be introduced in the current parliament session ending March 30, according to a joint statement issued by Law Minister Azalina Othman Said and Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail on Saturday.

“The proposed amendment is to replace the word ‘father’ in the matter related to the citizenship law, with the word ‘at least one of the parents,’ to enable Malaysian mothers have a fair access to their rights under the federal constitution,” the joint statement said about the cabinet decision made Friday.

“This is in line with the … government's commitment to recognize the equality between men and women while eliminating the discrimination towards Malaysian women apart from overcoming the weakness of citizenship provisions.”

Currently, the clause in the 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.”

Family Frontiers, an organization that been pushing for the change in the law, said it was heartening that the government took this step.

The group president Suriani Kempe said the government was on the right track.

“We are now waiting with bated breath for the amendment to be tabled in parliament,” she said in a statement.

“Only once the amendment passes can we breathe out in relief because only then the mothers will be able to submit their children’s documentation to the National Registration Department to get their citizenship document,” she added.

Suriani has reason to be cautiously optimistic, because it is not clear at this time whether the law, even if passed, would apply retroactively.

Constitutional lawyer Alias Shaari believes that if the amendment were passed it would not be implemented retroactively.

“It means that the amended law is not applicable to the ongoing court case,” he told BenarNews.

“However, the lawyers could use their wisdom in appealing for the adjournment of their clients’ case until the passing of the bill.”

The lawyer was referring to a case brought first to the Kuala Lumpur High Court by a group of Malaysian mothers, challenging the constitutional clause that denied their children citizenship.

They won that case in September 2021 in a landmark decision but the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s ruling and the mothers took the case to the highest Federal Court, where it is yet to be heard.

The lawyer said that the government’s decision was still the correct one for the future.

And it would also be of tremendous help to Malaysian mothers who are struggling with their children’s citizenship issues, especially when they have separated or divorced their husbands.

One affected mother, Rachel, who only wanted to be identified by her first name for privacy reasons, told BenarNews she was hopeful.

“I cannot wait for my son to finally hold his Identification Card in his hands.”

Haizal Yatiran in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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