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All his life, Wong Kueng Hui has dreamed of touring overseas with a hardcore punk band. But every morning, he wakes up to the same reality: he is stateless, and he may never be able to leave Malaysia.

Born and raised in Keningau, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Wong has been forced to work exploitative jobs, like when he woke up every day before dawn for a year to work as a conductor on a three-hour bus route from Tenom to Keningau to Kota Kinabalu. He worked the route three times per day, and only got off work after washing the bus. Sometimes, he would work 20 hours in a day, and he only got two days off every month.

When he took the job, Wong was promised a monthly salary of RM 800 (US$195), but his employer, claiming he had deducted Wong’s meal allowance, only ended up paying him RM 500 (US$120)—less than half of Malaysia’s minimum wage.

“I felt that the employer was taking advantage of me, but I had to accept it because I’m a stateless person and I don’t have an IC,” says 26-year-old Wong, referring to the state-issued identity card that confers all the rights of Malaysian citizenship.

They only looked at my mother’s nationality and the lack of marriage certificate. I was even queried about my dark complexion.

Without an IC, stateless people like Wong cannot legally work, access public education or healthcare, register a SIM card, open a bank account or vote. They also live in constant fear of arrest and deportation.

“These are just some of the inconveniences that a stateless person like me goes through daily, which other people don’t see,” Wong says. “They only see us as illegal immigrants.” 

The Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. Hence, such persons are not protected by the state and lack the basic rights guaranteed to every citizen. 

According to a 2019 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 10 million stateless people in the world. 

Sabah has the highest proportion of stateless people among Malaysia’s 13 states. Wong is one of an estimated 800,000 stateless persons in Sabah, out of a total population of 3.9 million people. There are many reasons for Sabah’s high proportion of statelessness: some stateless people are descendants of Filipino refugees and Indonesian migrants; others are Bajau Laut sea nomads or other indigenous people who are legal citizens but have not sought documentation. 

Then there are people who, for various reasons, have fallen between the cracks—like Wong. 

Unknown Origin

Wong was born in 1995 in Keningau District, in Sabah’s Interior Division. His father was Malaysian, and his mother was ethnically Bugis, which means she probably hailed from the southern part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. However, her nationality remains unknown. This is part of the reason why Wong remains stateless; under Malaysian law, his nationality should follow his mother’s, which he has tried and failed to verify.

Both of Wong’s parents died from illnesses when he was a child. His father died when he was 9, and the following year, his mother sent him to live with a nearby foster family so she could keep her job at a lumber mill. She died when Wong was 17.

In 2007, before his mother’s death, Wong went to the National Registration Department (NRD) in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu to apply for an IC, like all Malaysians are supposed to do when they turn 12.

His half-sister from his father’s first marriage brought Wong’s birth certificate and their father’s death certificate with them. Since his parents were not married, he was registered as an “illegitimate child” and told his citizenship would have to follow his mother’s nationality. As far as the state was concerned, Wong was not Malaysian.

“They only looked at my mother’s nationality and the lack of marriage certificate. I was even queried about my dark complexion,” he tells New Naratif.

Wong’s IC application was rejected on the spot, as he was deemed a non-citizen. He was instructed to apply for Malaysian citizenship, despite being born in the country and never having lived anywhere else.

“I was surprised when my birth certificate was amended to ‘non-citizen’, but I was too young to understand the situation. I thought it was just temporary while waiting to obtain my IC,” says Wong, who did not know he was stateless at that time.

Wong Kueng Hui in Kuala Lumpur in March 2021.

Wong’s foster mother in Sabah struggles to remember his history. She says he’s a good kid, the youngest of her 10 children. She never legally adopted Wong because she was overwhelmed by the legal process.

Preferring not to be named, she says: “I pity him because I don’t know what’s the solution for him. There’s no evidence that his mother is Indonesian. But one thing for sure—his father is a Chinese Sarawakian.”

At only 12 years old, Wong followed the NRD’s recommendation and applied for citizenship that same day under Article 15A of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which allows the federal government to grant citizenship to children under the age of 21. 

But for the next seven years, Wong did not hear back from the registration department. While waiting for his application results, he was still able to attend primary school, but at the age of 15, Wong almost missed his Penilaian Menengah Rendah (Lower Secondary Assessment) exam because he did not have an identity card. The test is a prerequisite for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (Malaysian Certificate of Education), the equivalent of a high school diploma, which is the minimum education requirement for formal jobs in Malaysia. 

Fortunately, Wong’s teachers intervened on his behalf, as teachers commonly do in Sabah on behalf of their stateless students. But his luck ran out when he tried to progress into upper secondary education at 16 years old. His headmaster and teachers referred him to the Education Department to seek advice on how to continue his studies.

The process would have required a legal guardian’s intervention, Wong recalls. His mother was still alive, but he felt the process was too tedious to pursue. So teenage Wong gave up on his formal education. 

“Of course, I still feel a tinge of regret, but with the current technology we have, I can still learn new things, although I’m not a [high school] graduate,” Wong says.

At 16, instead of studying, Wong looked for a job. Without legal documentation, he could only find informal work, which paid a poverty wage of around RM 500 per month and exposed him to unsafe working conditions. At a glass and aluminum workshop, workers regularly sliced their hands. He recalls one incident when he saw a glass panel fall and seriously injure a migrant co-worker, who received no compensation. 

Wong quit the job soon after. “I feared if I was injured, what would happen to me? We are not covered by insurance, nor would we be compensated, as [we are] undocumented persons,” he says.

In 2014, when Wong was 19 years old and still without an IC, he and his half-brother went back to the National Registration Department in Kota Kinabalu. Instead of giving him the result of his first application, the officers advised Wong to begin the process over and file a second citizenship application.

Stateless in Sabah

Known as North Borneo before World War II, when Sabah was controlled by the British North Borneo Company, the state was a major commercial and trading hub, home to many timber tycoons. 

The state shares a land mass with Indonesia and Brunei, and a maritime border with the Philippines. These colonial-era borders were historically porous, allowing people to move and settle freely. But with the establishment of hard borders after the formation of Malaysia in 1963, people who had crossed these lines were forced to remain where they were. Children born on the opposite side from where their parents were born ended up stateless, and if they did not actively seek and secure citizenship from Malaysian authorities, their statelessness would transfer to subsequent generations.

Statelessness is so prevalent in Sabah that stateless people outnumber the populations of every ethnic group in the state. This has led to their status becoming politicised by scandals such as “Project IC”, in which political parties have allegedly granted citizenship en masse in exchange for votes. These scandals have triggered xenophobic resentment among local Sabahans.

If you’re a working parent and daily wage earner, going to a government office to get your child’s IC means losing a day’s wage.

According to Anne Baltazar, founder of the Sabah-based NGO Advocates for Non-discrimination and Access to Knowledge (ANAK), there is a common misconception that all stateless people in Sabah are undocumented migrants.

“Many are born here [in Sabah], and some, like Wong, have a Malaysian parent,” she says.

In some cases, people who are citizens of Malaysia by birth end up stateless because their parents live in isolated communities and do not register their children with the NRD, according to Vilashini Somiah, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya who has been researching stateless persons and irregular migrants for the past decade.

Vilashini points out that many of these rural communities already struggle to make ends meet, so they feel no urgency to secure citizenship documents.  

“If you’re a working parent and daily wage earner, going to a government office to get your child’s IC means losing a day’s wage,” she says. 

“These [issues] then start to become complicated later in the child’s life, when it involves their education and future.”

Malaysia is not party to either of the two international conventions on statelessness—the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

Furthermore, Malaysia’s Immigration Act 1959/1963 does not make any distinction between asylum seekers, refugees, irregular immigrants and undocumented or stateless people. Instead, they are all considered undocumented migrants and face the risk of arrest.

Out of Options at Home

After submitting his second citizenship application in 2014, Wong took a 2.5-hour bus ride from his hometown of Keningau to Kota Kinabalu almost every month to seek an update from the NRD. But every time, he would get the same reply—his application was still being processed. 

“I was sad, angry and tired. Sometimes, I just wanted to give up. I could not see any hope for my future,” he says. 

When Wong was 20, immigration officers raided the nightclub where he was working as a DJ. They detained him for two hours for not having an identity card, which Malaysians are required to carry at all times. He was only released once his foster family brought his NRD application to the Immigration Department. 

“Although I was in the lock-up only briefly, I was scared. I could not imagine how my life would be if I was detained for a long time,” he says.

After three years of waiting in vain for the NRD in Sabah to process his citizenship application, Wong decided to seek an answer directly from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Kuala Lumpur. In order to secure a permit to travel to the capital, he told the Sabah Immigration Department that he was going for a holiday. On 1 December 2017, with just enough money for a plane ticket and some pocket money from his foster family, Wong took his first-ever flight and left Sabah for the first time in his life. 

Once in Kuala Lumpur, he took the opportunity to take in the sights of the big city. Wong was in a record store when he met Cichan, a fellow punk fan. The two music-lovers started chatting, and Wong explained his predicament. 

Cichan introduced Wong to a lawyer, Haijan Omar, who decided to take up Wong’s case due to his belief that no human should be treated as “illegal” or left without identification documents—especially someone who was born in Malaysia. 

“The government has a foremost duty to protect [stateless] people and provide them with identification documents so that they could get opportunities and live normally like others without fear of intimidation,” Haijan says.

Legal representation gave Wong renewed confidence in his years-long effort to become a Malaysian citizen.

“I felt quite lucky that I met Haijan because I never thought of getting legal help when I was in Sabah. I only became more aware of my rights and circumstances when I met him,” he says.

Sherzali Asli, a Sabahan lawyer and president of the Sabah Human Rights Centre, says there are insufficient legal aid resources for stateless people in Malaysia because of a lack of awareness of their plight, a lack of political will to help them and growing xenophobia toward them.

In 2018, a few months after his arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Wong received news that his citizenship application had been rejected by the Ministry of Home Affairs. No reason was given. 

A Glimmer of Hope

Refusing to accept his fate, and with Haijan’s help, Wong took his case to court in mid-2019. By this time, Wong had passed the age of 21, so he was no longer eligible to seek citizenship under Article 15A of the constitution. 

Vilashini, the lecturer, says that even though Wong applied for citizenship as a child, he is more likely to be denied by the authorities since he is now an adult. 

“The ongoing culture among the [stateless] community is that they do not have any rights as ‘illicit’ non-citizens, and therefore do not engage with or confront the law. I think usually the state would not entertain [them] either,” Vilashini says.

She explains that Wong’s is a “rare case” because he found a support network, whereas most stateless people are unable to fight for their rights in court.

“He’s one of the very few people who is able to do this. It takes a lot of guts and a level of understanding of one’s rights to do this,” Vilashini adds.

I always hoped to walk out of the court as a Malaysian one day.

Following Haijan’s advice, Wong searched for his mother’s records at the Philippine and Indonesian embassies in Kuala Lumpur. Neither embassy turned up any records of her, suggesting that she may have been stateless herself.

“The check with the respective embassies showed that his mother’s nationality is either unknown or untraceable. Therefore, he cannot apply for any citizenship of these countries,” Haijan says, adding that a Malaysian court must now make a decision about Wong’s citizenship because he cannot be left in stateless limbo.

Haijan applied for Wong’s citizenship under Article 14(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution, which stipulates that every person born in Malaysia who is not a citizen of any other country can apply to become a citizen.

After more than a decade of waiting, and living in the capital in fear of arrest for nearly two years, the Kuala Lumpur High Court granted Wong citizenship on 21 October 2019 and ordered the NRD to issue him an identity card. 

Outside the courtroom, the usually cool and collected Wong burst into tears, embracing his lawyers and thanking them for their help.

“It felt like I was in a dream,” Wong said at the time. “The 11 years of waiting were finally worthwhile. I always hoped to walk out of the court as a Malaysian one day, but I didn’t think it would be today.” 

He immediately shared the good news with his foster family and friends.

Return to Limbo

Wong’s elation was short-lived. Three weeks after the High Court’s decision, the Malaysian government applied for a stay of execution on the order to grant his citizenship. They argued that granting Wong an IC would set a precedent for other children of an unmarried Malaysian father and a non-citizen mother to seek citizenship through Article 14(1)(b). The High Court allowed the government’s application. 

Haijan argues that no such precedent would be set; Wong’s is a special case where his mother’s nationality is unknown, and he therefore cannot seek citizenship elsewhere.

The appeal hearing was to be heard in April 2020, but Malaysia went into lockdown on 18 March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Still, Wong remains determined to overcome these legal hurdles. Although he has been away from his foster family in Sabah for more than three years, he says he will not return home until he secures his citizenship. 

In January 2021, he learned his foster mother had fallen ill and was hospitalised. “At that time, I was very worried and wanted to go home to see her,” Wong says, adding that she had since recovered.

He also misses life in his home village and spending holidays with family and friends.

“I’m okay to wait a while longer rather than wait another 11 years,” he adds, referring to the pandemic-related court delay.

Wong laments that the citizenship application process is opaque, and different officers have given him different answers when he inquires about his application’s status. But one response from authorities has been consistent each time, he says. For more than a decade, Wong has always been told his application is being processed.

A sign seen in the lobby of the Home Affairs Ministry headquarters states that  decisions will be made on citizenship applications approved by the minister within 40 working days.

No Political Will

In December 2020, Home Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin announced that his ministry would give people without citizenship a one-year window to register with proper documentation.

This is easier said than done, according to stateless rights advocates.

Sabah Human Rights Centre president Sherzali says more needs to be done to dispel the misconception that stateless people are all undocumented migrants. He recommends creating greater public awareness about statelessness, humanising the issue and explaining that some stateless people are in fact the children of a Malaysian parent.

“That way, we can eradicate the growing xenophobia and start moving forward instead of regressing,” he says.

While welcoming the move by the Home Affairs Ministry, Vilashini, the lecturer, says issues like the Project IC controversy first need to be addressed in order to quell the fears of other citizens about losing their privileges.

For Baltazar, the anti-discrimination advocate, one of the first solutions should be to grant citizenship to children who have at least one Malaysian parent, regardless of the parent’s gender or whether the parents were married. 

New Naratif sent multiple requests for comment about citizenship applications to the Home Affairs Ministry, which did not respond.

As of early May, Wong is still waiting for his appeal hearing, which is set to take place later this month.

In a nondescript flat north of Kuala Lumpur in March, the 26-year-old hums softly while playing his bass guitar. Since moving to the capital, he has started a band, and he still hopes they can one day tour overseas. But without an IC, he cannot get a passport.

After coming so close to securing his Malaysian citizenship, only to have the government step in and deny him at the last minute, Wong sympathises with the hundreds of thousands of stateless people in Sabah, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation.

“Children should not bear the sins of their parents,” he says. “No one wants to be born stateless in this world.”

Chen Yih Wen

Chen Yih Wen is a Malaysian documentary filmmaker and journalist.