KUALA LUMPUR, June 28 — The government’s proposed changes to Malaysia’s citizenship laws, which may prevent stateless children from being called Malaysians, fail to consider why they became stateless in the first place, the Humans Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) said today.
Farah Nini Dusuki, the children’s commissioner to Suhakam, noted the Home Ministry’s recent efforts to propose amendments to the Federal Constitution to make it easier for Malaysian mothers’ overseas-born children to be Malaysians, and said it was a “significant shift” towards the ending of gender discrimination in Malaysia’s citizenship laws.
Currently, the Federal Constitution only states that overseas-born children who have a Malaysian “father” are entitled to be Malaysians automatically, and the Malaysian government has interpreted this to mean that overseas-born children with a Malaysian mother are not entitled to be Malaysians automatically.
Overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers married to foreign husbands however have to apply to be a Malaysian citizen, with the process often taking years and with no guarantee of success as the government can reject such applications repeatedly without saying why.
Last Friday, civil society groups attended a briefing by the Home Ministry, where they were told of the ministry’s plans to go beyond just amending the Federal Constitution’s citizenship laws related to Malaysian mothers with overseas-born children.
The civil society groups said the ministry also proposed to make other changes including to remove constitutional protections for some categories of stateless children and to restrict their rights and which would result in statelessness being passed down through further generations.
But Farah Nini cautioned against any attempts by the government to merge or comingle the proposed amendment to enable Malaysian mothers to pass on their citizenship to their overseas-born children, with the other proposed amendments which could affect stateless children by discriminating against them and excluding them from Malaysian citizenship.
“However, in the attempt to comprehensively overhaul the provision of citizenship enunciated in the Federal Constitution, it is wilfully dangerous in conflating the intention that seeks to refine the intricate practice of the acquisition of citizenship and ensure greater inclusivity with the potential for discrimination and exclusion of certain groups.
“The proposed amendment is seemingly detached from the necessity to take into consideration the contextual circumstances of the factors that render individuals especially children statelessness in the first place,” she said.
Children born in Malaysia could be stateless or not a citizen of any country in the world, when Malaysia does not recognise them as Malaysians.
Non-governmental organisation Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) on its website lists down the different categories of statelessness such as children who were abandoned at birth; stateless children who are denied Malaysian citizenship despite being adopted by Malaysian parents; and children born to Malaysian fathers who had yet to register their marriages with non-Malaysian mothers; and states that Orang Asli communities living in remote areas are also at high risk of becoming stateless due to undocumented or late registrations of their children’s birth.
While having to secure national interests and state sovereignty, Farah Nini said the Malaysian government also has the primary obligation to remove barriers to citizenship faced by children.
She said children should be treated as “full rights holder” with the right to acquire citizenship, but said the government’s current proposed amendments to citizenship laws instead puts children’s right to citizenship under their parents.
“The proposed amendments should be crafted through the lens of having the effect of reducing statelessness and the best interest of the children conjunctively,” she said.
She said the Federal Constitution reflects the country’s founding fathers’ aspiration for human rights to guide Malaysia, highlighting that former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein had in Parliament proposed a safety valve against statelessness, which resulted in the introduction of Article 15A in the Federal Constitution. (Under Article 15A, the Malaysian government may register anyone below the age of 21 as a Malaysian citizen, in such special circumstances as it thinks fit.)
“This is exemplified by our former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein on his explanation found in Hansard when proposing a safety valve resulting in Article 15A of the Federal Constitution to retain protection or safeguard against statelessness in the event of hardships and interests of the child to be conferred the citizenship,” she said.
“We urge further detailed consultations with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure that all the previous shortcomings and weaknesses in the law and Federal Constitution be addressed with less ambiguity and more clarity,” she concluded.
Last Saturday, the civil society groups that attended the briefing urged the government to reconsider the proposed amendments affecting stateless children and to have a proper consultative dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to ensure the amendments are just, proportionate and in the children’s best interests.
The civil society groups said it is understood that the government plans to finalise those proposed citizenship law amendments before presenting them to the Conference of Rulers on July 12.
Yesterday, Universiti Malaya’s Tunku Abdul Rahman chair Prof Datuk Shad Saleem Faruqi expressed alarm at the government’s “regressive” proposals that allegedly seek to tighten citizenship laws in Malaysia, calling these proposals “inhuman, cruel, heartless” and in violation of Malaysia’s international obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Shad Saleem cautioned that the alleged planned quiet removal of a constitutional safeguard protecting individuals from becoming stateless may create a large new class of stateless persons, and called for the Conference of Rulers to not let such controversial amendments get by without “thorough royal scrutiny”.