Malaysia: When gender gets in the way of citizenship

Of note:

IT is not difficult to guess that Aisha and Anis are sisters. They share a striking physical resemblance reflecting the Malay origin of their mother and Mauritian origin of their father.

Yet, it takes a bureaucrat to disrupt the unity of nature’s order.

For Anis is a Malaysian citizen, while Aisha, her older biological sister, has been struggling to obtain a citizenship without success.

Their mother, Siti Haniza, shook her head as she narrated the bureaucratic trauma she underwent trying to get her daughter to be granted her birth-right — which is to be registered as a Malaysian.

Her mistake, as an official had explained to her, was firstly to deliver their first child in Mauritius, and then having failed to fly 3,000km to South Africa to register her birth within the first month of her child’s birthday.

That was where the nearest Malaysian consul was located.

Unspoken in that narrative was her mistake of marrying a non-Malaysian and having children with him. That same situation would not have happened if Aisha’s father had been a Malaysian and her mother a non-Malaysian.

The rules and regulations of citizenship are gender-biased and discriminatory to Malaysian women. According to the Campaign for Equal Citizenship, Siti is not alone and her ordeal is shared by thousands of other Malaysian women.

The campaign, led by the Foreign Spouses Support Group, had raised awareness about this dismal situation by cataloguing real-life examples from around the world.

For Malaysian men with non-Malaysian wives who deliver in foreign lands, they need only notify the nearest Malaysian embassy for their children to be granted the necessary citizenship documents.

In contrast, Malaysian women with non-Malaysian husbands in similar situations would have to clear a higher standard by applying for their children to be recognised as citizens.

There is no guarantee that their child would be deemed a citizen.

The Campaign for Equal Citizenship documents the negative effects of such discrimination on Malaysian women.

It is highly stressful and disrupting to family life when family members have to undergo uncertainties with respect to the ability to enter the country and travel.

Or when husbands are separated from their wives and children for extended periods as a result of the bureaucratic process.

Children are denied access to services and job opportunities, while family relations become difficult to maintain and become brittle.

When asked about this apparent double standard, Siti responds firmly, “No matter where she was born, my daughter is every inch as Malaysian as I am.

“She comes from a long and illustrious family of civil servants who have served passionately and diligently to build the Malaysia that we are so proud of today.”

She continued, “Her forefathers were freedom fighters who fought against colonialism and suffered for it. Yet, my country has not reciprocated this legacy with empathy nor compassion.”

Malaysia is currently one of only 25 countries globally, and one of four countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which has discriminatory citizenship laws.

Malaysia does not recognise mothers as equal parents by law, as the Federal Constitution expressly provides that children born overseas to married Malaysian fathers are entitled to citizenship by operation of law (Article 14(1)(b) but is silent on children born overseas to Malaysian mothers.

Consequently, the process for registering children born overseas as Malaysian citizens is far more arduous for Malaysian women, making them feel like second-class citizens.

This law is deeply rooted in patriarchy which allows for sexist attitudes that influence the applications process.

These women are expected to follow their husband’s citizenship, live overseas and not enjoy the option for their children to choose their nationality.

Yet such a law is out of sync with the reality of Malaysian women today.

Malaysian women are among the most educated in the region, with high rates of labour participation and they play important leadership roles in both the public and private sectors.

Malaysia’s impressive economic transformation could not have been achieved without the important contributions of her women. Yet the country is unable to recognise this by discriminating against her bloodline.

Because of the painful experience with her first-born, Siti decided to deliver Anis in Malaysia and use her family network to ensure that her second daughter’s birth right to citizenship was not denied.

She now has two daughters with two different nationalities.

Siti laments: “It pains me to realise that Aisha would not be able to continue the family tradition of joining the civil service and serve Malaysia.”

She is also concerned that Aisha’s employment prospects would be significantly constrained without her Malaysian citizenship.

In May 2018 Malaysia showed the world that it had the capacity to change, to remove the kleptocrats ruining the country, in order to make the country a better place for all its citizens.

This sense of inclusivity needs to be extended also to Malaysian women and their genetic right to determine the citizenship of their children.

Source: When gender gets in the way of citizenship

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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