AUGUST 24 — It’s generally abhorred. Efforts to naturalise foreigners as new Malaysians — unless part of nefarious machinations to win state elections in the previous century (N1).

Up to 10,000 may become citizens this year after immigration announced its yearly applications processing target. Though most accepted are those married to Malaysians.

The only ones accepted for other reasons and on public record are sportsmen. Usually footballers. The rest are done in the cover of night. To openly add to the total number of Malaysians other than those born to Malaysians is a taboo. Especially if not through marriage.


Should Malaysia carry on like this?

It’s Merdeka month, nothing speaks more about freedom, patriotism and liberty than inclusion of new members through naturalisation. Citizenship ceremonies elsewhere are symbolic pledges to a newly adopted country. Migrants invested in the country transition from being participants to those devoted to the country's destiny.

Perhaps it is love, or maybe just convenience, but it is an inexorable passage in democracies ― new members. What begins as convenience may turn into a lifelong passion. Citizenship is complex.


Which is why citizenship ceremonies are unheard of here in Malaysia. New Malaysians may emerge but are asked to quietly join the parade, rather than headline the parade, seems to be the expectation.

In 2022, over 167,000 became naturalised Australians. Which is only slightly higher in Germany, with 168,500. Canada is the rock star of naturalisation, over 375,000 in 2022 which would include a noticeable number of ex-Malaysians. Down south, Singapore let in 23,100.

Malaysia intends to process 10,000 applications, loosely translated, a whole lot less than 10,000 get to become Malaysians in 2023. Stingy Malaysia.

The country is at the opposite end of the inclusion spectrum when compared to nations it intends to associate and aspire to.

Again, the question persists, is that particularly fair?

Malaysia prefers if the world is on its terms, not to increase the national population through naturalisation. For example, to not care about the 6 million migrants inside the country, despite a sizeable number fulfilling the 10-year residency prerequisite to apply for citizenship. Immigration might counter that a work permit is not permanent residency.

Potato, potato. Malaysia makes the rules therefore its rules must be measured by its moral property as much as its idealism or lack thereof. Any law which seeks to deny as a prerogative and purely as a prerogative is cruel and unjust. It should imbue universal values, more so since the present government brags about its progressiveness.

The residency test is to evaluate if the applicant stays in-country as a productive member of society, exhibits the social skills to fit in and demonstrates an attachment for the country.

If he or she does — show love for Malaysia — after time, considerable time, is denial out of touch with the famous Malaysian hospitality, humility and manners? Or are those just for the brochures, just for the tourist dollars?

The Jalur Gemilang flags are seen on a building in Putrajaya ahead of Malaysia's 66th Merdeka celebration, August 23, 2023. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
The Jalur Gemilang flags are seen on a building in Putrajaya ahead of Malaysia's 66th Merdeka celebration, August 23, 2023. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

The large citizenship reconfiguration

Movements of people from destitute and developing regions to the promised lands in the old and new world trickled since the end of the Second World War before turning into a steady stream, but in the last dozen years has exploded into a flooding river gushing to the embankments.

From central America to along the coasts of North Africa, and even the Indian Ocean, the needy have changed tracks from tentative treks to mad scrambles.

So, Malaysia’s standard excuse that somebody else should own the situation, is beginning to sound hollow, or worse whiny to the rest of the developed world. They are up to their necks with immigrants, and even in their dire situation they take in large numbers as new citizens unlike Malaysia. A combination of practicalities and humanity.

Malaysia is not only saddled by refugees from Rohingya or other parts of Myanmar, it's also fuelled by migrant labour over or around six million workers — depending on who reports. Are they all going to go away eventually?

Countries with economic stature are asked to deal with their own labour-refugee load, as a global reconfiguration of peoples continues to its peak. Today is not close to peak yet.

Malaysia has to formulate practical solutions, one of which includes naturalisation. Malaysia becomes an ageing society sooner if with the nearing negative population growth effect on population is not replenished by migration.

In the drains and boardrooms

It’s easier to put names or stories to the people discussed here. When it comes to naturalisation so that it is not an abstraction only.

My local Indonesian settlement is an illegal one in an abandoned building. The children, before and after school while waiting for their religious classes, play in the alley including the drain. The girls wear long pants under their baju kurung to maximise mobility during playtime.

So close but never to cross paths are the Myanmar children attending their vernacular private school 800 metres away at the other end of Alam Jaya in truly multicultural Cheras Batu 8. Their parents and caregivers are constantly alarmed as the children have to cross a main road to their low-cost flats.

After lunch, I’m at the high-end Bangsar Shopping Centre and the sight of four foreign staff members of the café toiling to perfectly lay out national flags across the front entrance and around the outlet as indifferent patrons sip their lattes.

By evening I’m with an old friend visiting from Japan. While his spouse is also a Malaysian scholar too happy to continue their journey together in a Tokyo satellite city, their three children hold Malaysian passports but are strangers when visiting “home”.

The youngest is 13, and if there was a family meeting it would be in Japanese, well it is their ideas language. My friend’s sister is the host, she is happy to have her brother over for a fortnight with his family.

Their large home has space, and her own children are grown up and reside ten thousand kilometres away; one’s a young investment banker and the other a burgeoning artist.

Three scenes to tell an interwoven tale.

Hadiah, an Indonesian, lives in that settlement with her Indonesian husband. She does odd jobs and she is proud of her Malaysian daughter who is assistant manager at a McDonald’s. Her daughter is cohorts ahead of the children playing nearby, they too are heading to be Malaysians. They speak in Malay rather than in Javanese or Bahasa Indonesia.

My friend’s children’s futures lie closer to volcano riddled Honshu, as are his niece and nephew’s fates in London. I’m unsure if he and his sister suspected during their years in MRSM, a Malay exclusive college, their own children would end up away from Malaysia.

As for those foreigners lining up Jalur Gemilang to be resplendent from now to Malaysia Day, how much of pride and connection runs in their veins as they place the flags and serve around them day in and out?

Sixty years out, Malaysia is still a concept and citizenship its weight. It’s the same everywhere in the world where conceptual countries fulfil their people’s desires and both government and peoples reconsider membership, entries and exits.

Malaysia’s exits are organic but its entries need to be less surgical and more inclusive to survive the 21st century. A whole slew of other challenges appear when new Malaysians join the fray, not the least race ratios, but is a different way feasible, or cynically put, tenable?

Much too liberal? Maybe. But are critics equally in this exposition, obtuse?

(N1) The anomalous increase of citizens in Sabah between 1970 to 2000 which was over 300 per cent in 30 years, from over 650,000 to 2.6 million. It ended Kadazan-Dusun state leadership. This column leaves the crooked and their political manoeuvrings in the Borneo state for a different instance.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.