KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 13 — Since childhood, Tehmina Kaoosji has fought an uphill battle to be recognised as a Malaysian citizen, in line with her mother’s nationality. But as a happy ending appears to be within her grasp, she finds herself back where she started once more.
The 38-year-old is a multihyphenate in the truest sense of the word. She is an independent broadcast journalist, producer, communications consultant, and a staunch advocate of social causes and gender-related issues.
However, Tehmina is also at the mercy of the Malaysian government, following the Court of Appeal’s majority decision on August 5, where two judges ruled that overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers cannot automatically be Malaysian citizens.
Datuk S. Nantha Balan was the only judge on the panel who disagreed, pointing out that Malaysia’s citizenship laws discriminated against Malaysian women by not allowing them to pass on citizenship to their children born abroad.
Advocacy group Family Frontiers and six Malaysian mothers, who had been pursuing the court case, will be appealing the verdict at the Federal Court, while Tehmina and others in the same predicament are left in the lurch once more.
Malaysia’s citizenship laws under the Federal Constitution only specify having a Malaysian “father” as the requirement for an overseas-born person to automatically qualify as a Malaysian citizen.
Based on this citizenship law, the Malaysian government has continued to apply the policy of only allowing Malaysian fathers’ overseas-born children to automatically become Malaysians.
The Malaysian government has not amended the Federal Constitution to also allow Malaysian mothers’ overseas-born children to automatically become Malaysians.
It has also refused to interpret citizenship laws in a way that would allow Malaysian mothers to pass on their citizenship to children born abroad.
“If the government is sincere about the #KeluargaMalaysia slogan, it is essential that Malaysian women should also be able to pass on citizenship to overseas-born children. Women birth and create ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ — how can they be excluded from it?
“With a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) from 2022-2024, Malaysia must also walk the talk and ensure we are no longer one of only 28 countries globally to subject women to archaic citizenship laws,” Tehmina said when sharing her story with Malay Mail recently.
Tehmina was born in India to her Malaysian mother, Loh Loon Nee, and her Indian national father. When she was 10 years old, the family of five migrated to Malaysia in 1995, where she attended school before embarking on work life. She holds Indian citizenship and has been a Malaysian Permanent Resident (PR) since 2010. Of the three siblings, only the youngest is a Malaysian citizen, having been born here, after the family’s relocation.
“My mother migrated to India after my parents registered their marriage in Malaysia in 1982. I was born there two years later in 1984. Mum was aware of the citizenship issues, because when I was eight months old, I had my Indian passport issued so we could fly to Kuala Lumpur for her to file my paperwork before my first birthday.
“I am always amazed by Mum’s fortitude. She was newly postpartum, travelling alone with a baby. After all that effort, the Malaysian government still denied her my citizenship papers when she attempted to submit my paperwork. We would eventually migrate to Malaysia in 1995. She tried applying for my citizenship again when I was in my early teens, but was denied once again for the same reason — that I had been born overseas,” Tehmina said.
For Tehmina, it is simply impossible to look back without considering the crushing impact that Malaysia’s citizenship laws had and continue to have on her life.
“Cycling back to my childhood — as with all other overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers with non-Malaysian husbands/partners — I was unable to access the Malaysian public healthcare system and public education system.
“In practical, daily terms, this meant scattered access to primary healthcare appointments, such as vaccinations as a child and also exorbitant foreign student fees for international school education, including annual student visa costs, or losing the right to remain in the country!” she lamented.
To remain in Malaysia after the age of seven, Malaysian mothers’ overseas-born children who are not recognised as citizens have to be enrolled for studies here to secure student visas.
Tehmina eventually ran out of student visas by 2008, and was living in Malaysia on social visit passes while the battle for her Malaysian PR application continued.
During this time, she was rendered ineligible for government scholarships in public universities, rookie journalist programmes, stable employment, research grants and “a five- to seven-year early start to my career in news media”.
‘Malaysian citizenship is my birthright’
Tehmina formally entered the Malaysian workforce at 26, when she had finally received her Malaysian PR in 2010, after two failed PR applications, which she described as “very precarious and stressful stretch of years”.
“It has been and continues to be a struggle to thrive professionally, let alone enjoy the benefits of life as a Malaysian citizen would.
“Financial precarity is a continuing lived reality for bi-national families like mine, as we are usually forced to depend upon only the Malaysian female parent’s income, since working visas for our foreign male parent are difficult to obtain. This also brings up the financial, emotional and psychological toll of the male parent’s constant visa runs and visiting pass extensions,” she added.
Tehmina said that the costs further escalate if the bi-national family in question is also vulnerable in other ways, such as through forced separation, substance abuse and domestic violence.
“All of which are documented marginalisation and violence against women experienced by these Malaysian mothers and their families, particularly over the pandemic, with its accompanying movement restrictions.
“Combine all of those potential additional risk factors with the standardised high costs of paying private sector costs for basic public goods like healthcare and education, and it is just cascading disadvantages across the life cycle,” she added.
While Tehmina can apply to be a Malaysian citizen by naturalisation under the Federal Constitution’s Article 19, she has not made such an application, as she believes that she should automatically be a Malaysian citizen as her mother is a Malaysian.
Under Article 19, the Malaysian government may grant a certificate of naturalisation, if a non-citizen aged 21 and above who applies to acquire citizenship through naturalisation fulfils certain requirements.
“I firmly believe that I should receive my Malaysian citizenship as a matter of principle and automatically — not via application. Malaysian citizenship is my birth right as the child of a Malaysian mother. I have faith that the ongoing lawsuits by the courageous and tireless mothers’ group, Family Frontiers, will see all of us foreign-born children of Malaysian mothers granted our citizenship rights soon,” she added.
To make matters worse, the sudden death of Tehmina’s mother from Covid-19 was a huge blow to the family.
Almost a month later, on September 9, 2021, the High Court made a landmark ruling in favour of Family Frontiers and the six Malaysian mothers, stating that children born overseas to Malaysian mothers are entitled to automatic Malaysian citizenship.
The Malaysian government appealed against this decision and sought to defer issuing citizenship papers to overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers while pursuing the appeal at the Court of Appeal, but the courts refused to allow delays in the citizenship documents issuance. This meant Malaysian mothers’ overseas-born children could start going through the same process to be automatically registered as Malaysians, by filling up the “Borang D” form just like the overseas-born children of Malaysian fathers.
An elated Tehmina went to submit her paperwork to the National Registration Department (NRD), but was denied from even being given the citizenship “Borang D” twice, on two separate occasions.
Reason? Her dead mother wasn’t with her.
“Of course, she could not accompany me as she had passed away due to Covid. Yet, the NRD officials did not see the sheer lack of logic in their argument. Does not having my recently deceased Malaysian mother with me for submitting my documents somehow nullify that she was my mother?
“Death is the most natural part of the life cycle, and for the NRD to not have the foresight to behave in a dignified, professional and helpful manner to assist me, is just a mind-boggling breach of ethical conduct,” she added.
She was instead given “Borang C” to apply for citizenship via naturalisation under Article 19, which she felt was an utter injustice as it is akin to denying her Malaysian roots despite living here for 27 years.
Under Article 19, one of the requirements to acquire citizenship through naturalisation is to have lived a cumulative total of 10 years within the 12 years before a person aged 21 and above submits the naturalisation application.
“Make it make sense! Why am I in the same category as professional footballers who receive citizenship via naturalisation? Malaysian citizenship is my birth right!” she added.
When will it end?
Tehmina added that in line with United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality, Malaysia had pledged its commitment to continue improving and taking measures to prevent and eliminating any forms of violence against women and girls.
She stressed that this aim must include the goal to ensure Malaysian women’s right to equal citizenship.
“Gender equality is not a highfalutin, philosophical ideal. It is an essential part of ensuring Malaysian women and all their children — regardless of where we are born — have full access to fundamental human rights, on par with Malaysian men.
“It is heartbreaking, demoralising and dehumanising to see Malaysian mothers, who are my age and younger, till today, experiencing the very same sexism and gender discrimination my own mother endured, with a new generation of children. This trauma now spans at least three generations of Malaysians. When will it end?
“How is it judicious, ethical or inclusive to ignore and in fact, perpetuate such systemic and systematic gender discrimination? Amend the Federal Constitution immediately to ensure an end to the suffering and daily challenges faced by Malaysian women with overseas born children.”