I belong here too

DECEMBER 30 ― As we go about celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of another, it is sobering to be reminded of at least 12,000 people in Malaysia who have yet to be recognised as citizens of a country.

Despite more than half a decade since Merdeka and the formation of Malaysia, thousands of people, from infants to adults, have been and continue to be left out of their right to Malaysian citizenship.

For the past week, DHRRA (Development of Rural Resources in Rural Areas) Malaysia and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have held a photo exhibition at Publika White Box highlighting the issue of statelessness in Malaysia and around the world. 

Ending today, the exhibition presents a powerful narrative of lost childhoods, missed opportunities, discrimination, endless frustration and a lifetime of despair. 

I honestly cannot imagine being stateless. We easily take for granted the fact that we live as citizens of Malaysia. Meanwhile countless others are deprived of the sense of belonging and identification that comes with citizenship. 

The effects of being born stateless and not being recognised as a national of any country are severe. It creates formidable and often insurmountable barriers which prevent access to education, healthcare and job opportunities.

For the past week, DHRRA Malaysia and UNHCR have held a photo exhibition at Publika White Box highlighting the issue of statelessness in Malaysia and around the world. ― Picture courtesy of UNHCR
For the past week, DHRRA Malaysia and UNHCR have held a photo exhibition at Publika White Box highlighting the issue of statelessness in Malaysia and around the world. ― Picture courtesy of UNHCR

Imagine your daughter or son being denied a chance to go to school because your child doesn’t have a birth certificate or an identity card. Or being told that you can’t take the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysian examination due to the same reason. Or being turned away from public healthcare facilities and medical treatment because you cannot afford the higher fees imposed on foreigners which they assume you to be because you don’t have a proper Malaysian identification card. Travelling could be a problem, as you could be arrested by police for not having any identification or on suspicion of being an undocumented migrant.

Imagine being denied your rights as a citizen of this country despite having lived here all your life and knowing no other home.

It seems inconceivable and unimaginable for many of us to think that a person living in modern Malaysia does not even have a birth certificate or be in such a state. Yet this is the reality for so many who are being missed out due to urban and rural poverty, illiteracy, plain ignorance and lack of awareness on the importance of having identity documentation.

Some would argue that it is incumbent upon the affected individuals to ensure that they be registered and that the state is not at fault for the predicament of those who are stateless. However, it is worthwhile recognising that many of them are often born in circumstances not of their own or parents’ control. Conditions of hardship where home births in remote villages and plantations are common, marriages are rarely registered, abandoned children, and costly trips to the nearest town with a hospital or a National Registration Department (NRD) office.

In fact, many of those affected would have been entitled to citizenship by operation of law under the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. However, it is often a reality that this status is denied to them as they are often unable to produce the prerequisite documents such as parents’ marriage certificates or death certificates, especially if those were issued before 1957. 

According to the Federal Constitution, a person is considered to be a national by birth if born in the Federation:

• Article 14 (a) – On or after Merdeka Day and before October 1962. After September 1962, a person is a national if at least one parent is either a citizen or a permanent resident, or was not born a citizen of any country.

• Article 14 (b) – On or after Malaysia Day (16 September 1963). With at least one parent being a citizen or a permanent resident at the time of birth. Or is born within the Federation who is not born a citizen of any other country.

It is important to note that Article 14 (b) actually incorporated a humanitarian clause to extend assistance to those who are bereft of any citizenship. The framers of the Constitution anticipated a time when there will be such a need to help those who have slipped through the cracks and have rightful claim to citizenship.

Stories from those left behind. ― Picture by Azrul Mohd Khalib
Stories from those left behind. ― Picture by Azrul Mohd Khalib

There is a vicious cycle which exists and perpetuates statelessness. A decision by uninformed and illiterate parents to not register the birth of their baby daughter four decades ago, would have severe effects and impact her life and future. She would encounter obstacles in getting herself properly registered as a Malaysian, especially if her parents were originally not registered. She would have difficulty in securing registration of her marriage, the birth of any children and so forth. Her children would suffer similar consequences and the likelihood of them becoming stateless themselves is altogether too real.

Due to her statelessness status, Shanti, the mother of a four-year-old boy was forced to give birth at home without any medical assistance due to the high prohibitive costs of treatment for non-citizens at the local public hospital. Unable to travel due to distance and cost, this made it difficult for her to secure registration documents for her baby despite regulations requiring that all births must be registered within 14 days of the birth. Unfortunately, her boy is now stateless and she fears for his future. 

Kavita, 22, was born and raised in Malaysia and is another example of such circumstances. She lacks a nationality because her father died and her mother left with no one to care for her welfare. Today, because of her status, she is unable to further her studies and fulfil her ambition of becoming an art teacher. By being stateless, she is denied a future.

The thing is, statelessness is preventable and there is remedial action available under the Federal Constitution.

Yet, when we look at the statistics from DHRRA Malaysia on this issue, the confirmation of citizenship status by NRD still seems to be woefully out of reach of those affected. Out of the 11,538 people registered with the NGO, 4,634 applications (for identification card, citizenship determination, birth registration) were able to be submitted to the NRD. However, only 250 thus far succeeded in acquiring documentation.

It is a long and complicated legal process where applicants have even died waiting for an answer to Malaysian citizenship that was not forthcoming. Why is this so?

Looking at the many photos of the exhibition, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the featured cases of statelessness in Malaysia are those of Indian ethnicity. If ever there was a more compelling reason to be rid of the race-based political system which plagues our country, this is one of them.

The future of individuals and communities in need of such urgent assistance cannot depend on the competency and mercy of politicians from ethnocentric political parties to fight for them. The statelessness of so many who should rightfully be called Malaysians is a damning stain on how this political system has failed to fight for those who cannot speak for themselves.  

For these Malaysians who have been forgotten, we must do better. The NRD must seek them out rather than wait for those who are affected to go to them. 

Let me end this article with the words of Ms. Puanesway, 65 years old, who is currently waiting for the results of her NRD application to obtain an identity card:

“I have waited all my life to be recognised as a Malaysian. I feel like I am re-born again. To all those people who said 'No' to me, I want to show them, I belong here too.”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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