Anwar's govt in M'sia is trying to amend citizenship laws. Why do some oppose it?

Turning lemonade into lemons, a progressive change turns sour.

Tan Min-Wei | March 31, 2024, 12:08 PM

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An attempt to get citizenship rights for the children of Malaysian mothers with foreign husbands has turned into a fight over the rights of stateless children in Malaysia, as well as who gets to decide who is eligible for Malaysian citizenship.

Pass it on

Attaining Malaysian citizenship can be relatively straightforward, if you meet the right conditions.

Malaysian parents in Malaysia, who are married to each other, can have children who will automatically become Malaysian citizens.

Malaysian fathers also pass on automatic citizenship to their offspring, regardless of where the child is born, or whether their wives are Malaysian citizens.

On the other hand, Malaysian mothers married to a foreign spouse can only pass on Malaysian citizenship if their children are born in Malaysia.

Children born to Malaysian mothers with foreign husbands do receive automatic Malaysian citizenship, creating what the Malay Mail described as an "unfair and discriminatory" situation against women.

Singapore had a similar approach prior to its own reforms in 2004.

In recent years there has been an effort by campaigners to change this, hoping to rework the wording of the Malaysian Constitution that specifies Malaysian fathers, to instead specify Malaysian parents.

This would allow Malaysian mothers to automatically pass on Malaysian citizenship to their children, even if their kids were born overseas.

Reform and amendments

These campaigners appeared to have reached a breakthrough in 2023 when Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (Law and Institutional Reforms) Azalina Othman Said stated that the government of Anwar Ibrahim would seek to grant citizenship to the children of Malaysian mothers, regardless of the citizenship of their husbands.

In June 2023, Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said the government would be introducing eight new amendments to the Constitution related to citizenship.

The amendments sought to make a range of reforms to Malaysia’s citizenship laws, not just that of the citizenship rights of Malaysian mothers overseas.

However, several are causing concern amongst Malaysian activists.

The main source of debate at present is about the change of legal wording for orphaned stateless children.

Currently, orphans and foundlings who are stateless can be granted Malaysian citizenship after a period of time.

This process is automatic, as it occurs through “operation of law” but Malaysia’s proposed reforms changes the wording from “operation of law” to “by registration”.

According to the Malay Mail, this would mean that stateless orphans would no longer be able to claim Malaysian citizenship automatically, and it would be up to the Home Ministry’s discretionary power to grant citizenship or not.

'No chance'

Campaigners and activists worry that even with the current state of the law, it remains very difficult for stateless orphans to become officially recognised as Malaysian citizens.

Statelessness affects their ability to attain education and healthcare.

As adults, it prevents them from getting official identification, and thus prevented from opening bank accounts or getting driver’s licences.

This, in turn, makes it harder for them to gain employment and become self-sufficient.

The proposed change to the law might mean that an already difficult situation would be made worse, without a clear benefit.

Stateless children would have to remain in Malaysia, with the government continuing to provide care for them.

Saifuddin, as quoted by Benar News, rejected the complaints, saying that “there’s no chance, more kids [are] going to be stateless.”

Saifuddin had pushed back against the protest, saying that in parts of the country, particularly in East Malaysia, there was a significant issue.

He said that non-Malaysian parents would sometimes abandon babies in Malaysian hospitals, knowing that the child would eventually receive automatic Malaysian citizenship.

Meanwhile, they would “just leave” the hospital, leaving the medical bills unpaid, and allegedly costing the Malaysian government “hundreds of millions of Ringgit”.

Not straightforward

The arguments reached a crescendo this week, when finally Saifuddin relented, saying that he would push ahead with seven out of the eight reforms, discarding the change of wording related to stateless orphans.

Campaigners and activists still have issues with some of the other reforms, such as similar measures affecting the children of two permanent residents, or children born out of wedlock, and are as yet unresolved.

If and when the amendments reach the Malaysian parliament however, Anwar's government appears to have enough support to get the supermajority needed.

But it should also be noted that getting the reforms as far as this was not straightforward.

Given the need for a constitutional change, and the effect the amendments would have on citizenship, Azalina said the changes required the consent of the conference of rulers.

This refers to the gathering of Malaysian sultans that, amongst other things, decide whom amongst them will hold Malaysia's rotating monarchy.

On March 27, 2024, the debate on the citizenship amendment bill has been deferred to the next sitting of the Dewan Rakyat, in June.

Uneasy progression

But the argument highlights a growing sense of unease with Anwar’s government.

It was often touted, especially prior to taking power, as a reforming, progressive government, but critics have since said that Anwar's government has not met their expectations.

A harsher approach towards the stateless is one.

Another is what some have considered a slow approach towards political reform.

It has reached the point where one time allies of the governing Pakatan Harapan coalition, the anti corruption reform group Bersih, has threatened protest unless Anwar’s government takes more concrete steps towards political reforms.

The group even went as far to hold a gathering outside parliament in February 2024, of about a hundred people.

Ultimately, Bersih leaders met with Anwar, who promised that his government was acting on some of Bersih’s proposals, and considering others, while not saying precisely which reforms he was acting on.

The amicable pause shows that relations between Anwar’s government and the pro-reform elements of his base has not entirely broken down, but the strain is clear to see.

Top image by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash