KUALA LUMPUR, July 14 — Former Malaysian squash champion Choong Wai Li has a cabinet full of trophies from the five years she played for her country, but if her son were to inherit her sporting talents he would not be able to represent the nation.
That is because Malaysia is one of 25 countries that do not give mothers and fathers equal rights to pass their nationality to their children.
Choong’s son Michael has his father’s Irish nationality and is considered a foreigner in Malaysia, the country they call home.
Along with five other Malaysian mothers, Choong has launched legal action against the government over “sexist and outdated” citizenship rules, which they say risk trapping women in abusive relationships and can leave children stateless.
Lawyers say a victory could have implications for tens of thousands of binational families and increase pressure on other countries to reform their own laws.
“I feel very betrayed after everything I’ve done for my country,” said Choong, once Malaysia’s top junior player.
“Malaysia is our home, but my son is living here as a foreigner,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The problem arises when children are born overseas to Malaysian women with foreign spouses. Although Malaysian men can automatically confer citizenship to children born abroad, women do not enjoy the same right.
“It’s an embarrassment this situation still exists in 2021,” the women’s lawyer Joshua Andran said, adding that such laws could have tragic consequences.
Some women end up trapped in abusive marriages for fear they will lose custody of their children, while others may end up separated from their children if their marriages break down.
Andran said the pandemic had underlined the urgency of resolving the issue, with some mothers overseas unable to return home due to entry restrictions on foreign nationals — including their children.
“The law is the product of a patriarchal system,” he said. “The damage it’s causing these families is very significant.”
Time for change
Choong has battled for years to get Malaysian nationality for Michael, now seven, who was born while the family was living in Hong Kong where she worked as a headhunter.
Although Malaysian women can apply for citizenship for children born overseas, decisions often take years and rejections are common.
“It’s time for change. We just want equal rights,” Choong said from Kuala Lumpur.
Children like Michael do not have the same rights to free education and healthcare as Malaysian children, and the pandemic has made it harder to renew visas.
Campaigners said school fees, health insurance and visa costs could create a serious financial burden for families.
This often deters women from returning home to raise their families, as does the fear that their children will have to leave the country once they are adults.
In May, the Malaysian government asked the High Court to throw out the women’s lawsuit, deeming it “frivolous”.
But the judge ruled it was an important issue and said the government must provide justification for the apparent discrimination.
The government, which is appealing the ruling, did not respond to a request for comment. The case is expected to be heard next month.
Campaign group Family Frontiers, also a plaintiff in the case, said the number of binational families was increasing every year and the law needed to catch up.
“It makes no sense for the government to make it so hard for professional women to return home at a time when the country is keen to reverse a brain drain,” said spokeswoman Chee Yoke Ling.
She said some of the cases they dealt with were “heart-wrenching”.
“Some women stay in very toxic marriages because they are so scared that if they leave then their children, not being Malaysian, won’t be able to come back with them.”
In cases where the father also cannot confer his nationality children have ended up stateless, leaving them very vulnerable, Chee said.
Stateless people are deprived of basic rights and often unable to access education, healthcare, jobs and housing.
Malaysian businesswoman Rekha Sen, another plaintiff in the case whose three children were born in neighbouring Thailand, was granted citizenship for one child, but not the others. No explanation was given.
Sen, who founded her jewellery company in Malaysia but lives in Bangkok, said her country risked losing a lot of working professionals by creating barriers to their return.
“Malaysia is home to me and I’ve always wanted to give back to my country, but I feel in many ways that door is now being closed to me.”
She said the pandemic had highlighted the harm caused by discriminatory citizenship laws, with some families left separated as countries restricted entry to non-nationals.
“Covid-19 has amplified the issue,” added Sen. “These laws really do cause distress.”
Six countries have similar rules to Malaysia including Barbados, Iraq and Liberia.
Another 18 — including Nepal, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — do not let mothers confer citizenship to their children even if born in the country.
But the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights said there was growing momentum to address the issue with more than 20 countries having amended discriminatory citizenship laws since 2003, although reforms were often partial.
The Malaysian mothers say the constitution’s provisions on citizenship violate Article 8 of the constitution, which bans gender discrimination, and are seeking a declaration that mothers can pass citizenship to children born overseas.
“This law has no place in 2021,” said Sen. “It’s archaic and makes no sense.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation