Rachel and her two children

Mothers Fight Sexism in Malaysia’s Citizenship Law

During brief respites from her work in advertising, single mother Rachel Ng pours her energy into caring for her two children in their Petaling Jaya home. One day, as she leafs through her 7-year-old son’s latest obsession—hand-drawn comics—she discovers sketches of himself, packing his luggage to leave Malaysia aboard a plane, alone.

“Because I’m not Malaysian, I have to leave right?” Rachel’s son said when she asked him about the drawing.

“I don’t think a lot of people realise how much this impacts children,” Rachel says, her voice cracking as she describes her child’s uncertain future. 

Rachel fears that one day she will be separated from her son because of his citizenship: he holds a British passport, while Rachel and her 1-year-old son are Malaysian citizens.

“What would be really upsetting is if he is forced to leave the country when he doesn’t want to,” Rachel tells New Naratif. “That fear and anxiety of having to live in a country that he’s not familiar with, even though that’s where his citizenship lies…What hurts me the most is him not being able to make that choice on his own.”

Rachel is among thousands of Malaysian mothers who have been prevented by the country’s nationality law from conferring their Malaysian citizenship to their children born overseas. Malaysian fathers, however, pass down citizenship automatically, no matter where the child is born. 

Malaysia is one of 25 countries that prevent women from passing citizenship to their children as easily as men can. This is despite the fact that this discriminatory policy clashes with Article 8 of the country’s Federal Constitution, which says there should be “no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender”. 

“I don’t think a lot of people realise how much this impacts children.”

These gender-specific constraints can be traced back to Article 14 of Malaysia’s constitution—a colonial-era provision that only cites Malaysian fathers as being able to pass on their citizenship to their children who are born overseas through “operation by law”, or automatic citizenship.

Malaysian women, on the other hand, can only confer citizenship “by registration” to their overseas born children, which means they must first apply under Article 15(2) of the Federal Constitution. Under this provision, Malaysia’s National Registration Department (NRD) may grant citizenship to anyone below 21 years old, as long as at least one parent is Malaysian. But according to data released by the home affairs ministry, these applications rarely succeed.

No Reason Given

On the surface, citizenship applications via Article 15(2) seem straightforward. But in reality, many Malaysian mothers end up mired in tedious bureaucracy for years.

The long processing time undermines children’s prospects of obtaining citizenship, rendering many applicants ineligible once they turn 21, especially those who begin the process as young adults.

As a result, mothers are forced to race against time, bearing the burden of having to call the NRD repeatedly to ensure that their application is actively being processed. When Rachel applied for her older son’s citizenship, the only confirmation she received was a receipt number, which she jotted down quickly so she could follow up on the case later. Since then, she has called the department to check her application’s status more times than she can count, and the only information she has received is that her application is “pending”. 

“Even right now, I suspect that my application is lost, because it’s been six years,” Rachel says.

The NRD offers scant details on what constitutes a successful application, so many unsuccessful applicants never find out how to move forward with an appeal.

“The primary difficulty of seeking citizenship by registration under Article 15(2) is that it is a matter of discretion of the minister of home affairs,” says Suri Kempe, president of Family Frontiers, an organisation that advocates for gender-equal citizenship policies and the rights of binational families in Malaysia. 

“Often, after many years of waiting, there is no reason given, which hamstrings mothers’ efforts to reapply in the future,” Suri adds.

Rekha Sen endured this lack of transparency when she had to apply for citizenship for three of her children. In March 2012, two months after giving birth to her first child in Thailand, Rekha travelled back to Malaysia to register her baby as a citizen. The application was successful, and Rekha was confident the same would be true for her next two children. 

However, despite providing the same documents for her two younger children’s applications later in 2012 and in 2016, they were both rejected. Rekha has since made several trips from Thailand to Malaysia to follow up, appeal and reapply, all to no avail. The answer has always been “ditolak”—rejected.

She filed an appeal after her second child was rejected, which has been pending for years. When her third child was rejected, she didn’t bother appealing.

“Nobody’s ever been able to tell me why I’ve had one successful application, one [pending] appeal and one rejection,” she says. “It’s like walking on eggshells all the time.”

Successful citizenship applications by Malaysian mothers are rare. Statistics are not routinely made public, but the home affairs ministry has disclosed some figures in response to questioning in parliament. From 2013 to 2018, only 142 applications were approved, while 3,715 were rejected and 4,959 were left pending. From 2018 to 2021, just 21 out of 2,352 applications were approved, with 31 rejections. The approval rate of just 0.89% over the past three years means 2,300 applicants are still suspended in uncertainty.

Government Contempt for the High Court

Under Malaysia’s previous Pakatan Harapan government, a few prominent politicians, including the deputy prime minister, acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the country’s citizenship policy and spoke in favour of allowing women to confer citizenship to their children. But in 2020, the coalition collapsed and was succeeded by the more conservative Perikatan Nasional government.

“When the Pakatan Harapan government fell, we lost key advocates in government,” Suri says.

Undeterred, she and her organisation Family Frontiers decided to take the issue to court. In December 2020, Family Frontiers, along with Rekha and five other mothers of non-citizen children filed a lawsuit against the government challenging the official interpretation of Article 14(1)(b) and (1)(c) and demanding the word “father” be interpreted to include mothers.

“At this point, the court was the only avenue available to seek justice for all the Malaysian mothers who were going through these difficulties,” Suri says.

The following month, the new Perikatan Nasional government applied for the case to be thrown out. Senior federal counsel Ahmad Hanir Hambaly said the lawsuit was “scandalous and frivolous” and “an abuse of court process”.

“Even right now, I suspect that my application is lost, because it’s been six years.”

Fortunately for the mothers, High Court judge Akhtar Tahir dismissed the government’s attempt to throw out the case, acknowledging in May 2021 that “there is an apparent discrimination” against Malaysian mothers who give birth abroad.

The government immediately submitted another appeal to throw out the case, which was dismissed for the second time in August 2021 by the Court of Appeal bench led by judge Azizah Nawawi.

Amid rising media attention, High Court judge Akhtar Tahir ultimately ruled in favour of the mothers on 9 September 2021, declaring that Malaysian women should have the same citizenship rights as men. “The grievances of the plaintiffs are real…the discrimination is apparent,” the judge said.

The court issued three orders on the heels of its decision, including that the word “father” in the Federal Constitution must be interpreted to include the mother, giving foreign-born children of Malaysian women citizenship by operation of law. The judge also ordered the government to extend the time for mothers to comply with the necessary citizenship registration procedures, and for the authorities to issue relevant documents, such as identification cards, to the impacted children.

But celebrations were short-lived.

Esther's two children, with different nationalities.
Esther’s two children, with different nationalities. Supplied

Just a few days after the landmark court decision, the Malaysian government, the home affairs minister and the NRD director-general filed an appeal and applied to stay the implementation of the decision until the Court of Appeal’s decision. 

The move surprised opponents of the current law, as even politicians from the ruling coalition had publicly expressed support for the High Court’s ruling and publicly called for the appeal to be revoked. 

Nonetheless, the High Court dismissed the government’s stay request on 15 November, pending the appeal. A day later, the Attorney General’s Chambers filed yet another temporary interim stay to halt the High Court’s directive and stop authorities from issuing citizenship documents to the affected children. 

Meanwhile, the government’s appeal against the High Court decision is scheduled for hearing at the Court of Appeal on 23 March 2022.

Rekha, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, tells New Naratif that while she has faith in the justice system, she cannot fathom how, given the choice, the government would deny justice to women in her situation. 

“My husband would ask, ‘Why are you fighting so hard for a country that obviously doesn’t want you?’ In the first few years, I said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just a process’. But now, I’m beginning to tell him, ‘You know what, I think you’re right’,” Rekha says.

The government has offered a slew of justifications for its attempts to reverse the High Court’s decision. In a December 2020 parliament session, deputy home affairs minister Ismail Mohd Said said “we must be diligent to prevent the child from being granted dual-citizenship”, adding that “this is a matter of national security and sovereignty that we must ensure”. 

In October 2021, home affairs minister Hamzah said in a televised interview that if mothers really wanted their children to have Malaysian citizenship, they should just return to Malaysia to give birth. He also said Malaysian citizenship is the “highest award” that “cannot easily be passed or given to just anybody”.

“If we are loyal to the country,” the minister went on, “we would be sure we want the citizenship of our own country.” 

Trivialising Pregnancy

By singling out women who give birth abroad, the Malaysian government forces them to make life-threatening decisions that men with foreign-born children do not have to make.

In 2019, Esther, who declined to give her full name due to fear of reprisals, was pregnant and living in Germany with her husband and 6-year-old daughter as her second pregnancy was coming to term. She could not secure Malaysian citizenship for her first child, so she decided to make an arduous solo trip to Malaysia to give birth and ensure citizenship for her next child.

When she arrived in Malaysia, Esther felt some pain and immediately rushed herself to an emergency room. Doctors detected an unusual heartbeat in her unborn baby and warned that she may have to undergo a caesarean delivery, or risk a miscarriage. Fortunately, the delivery went smoothly, and she gave birth to a healthy baby. 

“It could have turned out differently,” Esther says, sighing with relief. “I [wish] the government [wouldn’t] trivialise a woman’s pregnancy.”

Fear of medical complications is one reason Malaysian women have chosen not to travel to Malaysia to give birth, even when it meant sacrificing their children’s automatic citizenship.

For Rachel, travelling home to give birth to her first child wasn’t even an option. “I had two miscarriages before my firstborn,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to risk anything. I just wanted to safely deliver the baby in London. All I wanted was to just hold him in my arms.” 

Suri says the government’s position is founded on male privilege, since “the men making those statements will never have to go through pregnancies”. This male privilege extends further into the citizenship application process. 

When Rekha travelled to Malaysia with her first child two months after giving birth in 2012, she was forced to answer questions like: “What have your contributions been to your country that make you deserving of citizenship?” Even the interviewing officer, a woman, appeared uncomfortable as she asked the question, Rekha says.

“As a woman, do I need…to show that I’m of value and my child is of value, whereas my male counterpart doesn’t have to do the same?” she says. “I pay my taxes, I incorporate my company here, I try to give back as much as I can. My children feel that they’re Malaysian. I love this country, and I want to do something for this country. Yet, where is the justice in that? Where’s the logic?”

“As a woman, do I need…to show that I’m of value and my child is of value, whereas my male counterpart doesn’t have to do the same?”

This questioning of women’s loyalty makes Esther feel the government perceives women who marry foreign nationals as “traitors”, especially since the same concern is not extended to men. She recounts male colleagues dismissing her worries about her future children’s citizenship before her first pregnancy.

“Just go to the embassy, hand in your application, and you will easily get the birth certificate,” she recalls being told. 

“For my Malaysian [male] colleagues overseas, all their [children] are Malaysian. They don’t have to come back, they don’t have to make the choice that I have made. It’s just not fair,” she says. “Are our children less Malaysian or more prone to becoming a national security problem? Children? I don’t know.”

Struggling Without Citizenship

Malaysian mothers who give birth abroad incur a heavy financial burden that Malaysian men with foreign-born children do not. If they decide to raise their children in Malaysia, mothers have to pay higher rates for healthcare, education and even leisure activities for their kids. Hospital fees for non-citizens, for instance, cost more than double what Malaysian citizens have to pay.

Because of this added cost, Esther delayed getting her child vaccinated against tuberculosis. She would have had to pay 50 to 100 ringgit (US$12–24) for a jab that Malaysian children receive at school for free. She has also struggled to register her non-citizen daughter at a public school, making three visits to the school, five to her local district education department and several more to the state education department in the south of Peninsular Malaysia.

Rachel faces an even tougher time securing an education for her foreign-born child, as the public school in her area has told her they do not accept non-Malaysian children at all. This left her with no choice but to place her child in a private school, where fees are significantly higher. As a single mother and sole breadwinner for her family, Rachel had to hurry back to work after her maternity leave to be able to afford the fees.

“Are our children less Malaysian or more prone to becoming a national security problem?”

Many mothers also say they can see the effects of Malaysia’s citizenship policy on the social lives and identities of their young children. Esther’s 6-year-old daughter, for instance, is the only non-Malaysian citizen in their small town. She often asks her mother why she does not possess a blue identification card like her schoolmates, who innocently remind her: “It’s because you’re from Germany.” 

During an online Independence Day celebration in August, her schoolmates drew Malaysian flags and sang patriotic songs. Esther’s daughter turned to her and asked: “Mommy, why am I not Malaysian?”

Noor Aziah, a law professor and children’s commissioner for the governmental Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, says children who fail to secure citizenship run the risk of becoming stateless or undocumented in adulthood, which can lead to difficulties finding a job and the inability to travel abroad.

Tehmina Kaoosji, a journalist and gender activist born in India to a Malaysian mother and an Indian father, knows these risks well. Her mother submitted a citizenship application on Tehmina’s behalf before she turned 21, but it was not successful. Despite having lived and worked in Malaysia for the last 30 years, Tehmina continues to live without Malaysian citizenship. In previous interviews, she has described having to delay her education in order to secure her right to stay in Malaysia and struggling to pay for health services.

“Having no control over one’s life trajectory, career aspirations and overall quality of life due to citizenship issues is incredibly demoralising,” she says. 

Driven by Hope

Despite the challenges ahead, the six mothers remain hopeful about the prospect of defeating the government’s appeal. Family Frontiers is active in the Nationality Campaign for Equal Citizenship Rights, which advocates for gender-equal nationality rights around the world, and they advise families affected by the nationality law. 

Meanwhile, more mothers have taken to social media to raise awareness about the ways the unequal law affects them. Despite receiving hate messages, some mothers are undeterred and continue to post their experiences online. 

Rachel and Esther have begun using Instagram and TikTok to share information, while also expressing their grievances through humour. Esther believes this will help women affected by the law, “so that others won’t go through what I did”.

“Having no control over one’s life trajectory, career aspirations and overall quality of life due to citizenship issues is incredibly demoralising.”

Tehmina also uses various media platforms to raise awareness about the impact of Malaysia’s gendered citizenship policy on families. “Enough with fearmongering and manipulating national security narratives to deny Malaysian women their fundamental rights as citizens,” Tehmina says. “Asserting their right to pass on citizenship is how Malaysian women like my late mother, like the young mothers with toddlers creating advocacy TikToks—how these different generations of Malaysian women express not just their exhaustion and frustration, but their love for Malaysia,”

“Hope is a main driver for continuing,” Suri tells New Naratif. “When a mother is put in a situation where she has to fight for the right of her child to survive, she has no choice—she cannot give up.”

As mothers like Rachel, Esther and Rekha continue to fight for their children’s fate, they believe that change can only happen with the collective support of all Malaysians.

“​​You don’t have to sympathise with me about my journey,” Rachel says. “As long as you’re aware that the current citizenship law is wrong, and you support the change of this law—that’s all we ask for.

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