For a long time, foreign wives of Malaysian citizens have struggled with the prolonged situation of being entangled in a bureaucratic maze that prevents them from becoming citizens of Malaysia. Existing application processes for citizenship for these women typically take many years, starting with the procedures to obtain entry permits. In many cases, the remaining procedures might take many more years, leaving these women as noncitizen spouses and mothers of Malaysian husbands and children until retirement age and beyond. As these women have devoted their lives to raising their families and contributing to our Malaysian society, this is undoubtedly distressing and disheartening.
While this topic may not be immediately impacting us as Malaysian students, we feel the urge to address it as we have had miserable stories and experiences shared with us, including from our colleagues. One such story is that of a 70-year old plus woman, Aunty M, who arrived in Malaysia in the year 1980. She married a Malaysian man from Kedah, and has since brought up her family in Malaysia. She has lived her entire life in Malaysia since then yet her citizenship applications have consistently been delayed/ turned down with no reasons provided.
Prior to 2000, Aunty M first applied for Malaysian citizenship yet received no response before applying again in 2013 for citizenship by way of naturalisation pursuant to Article 19(1)(a)(i) of the Federal Constitution, which is a form of citizenship that may be granted to a non-citizen upon fulfilling certain requirements. It requires the applicant to have been residing in the Federation for at least ten years besides having a good character and possessing an adequate knowledge of the Malay language. The application was, however, rejected in April 2016. Determined, Aunty M put another attempt of application in 2017. In 2018, according to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (former Prime Minister), permanent residents over 60 years old with red MyKads who filed for citizenship and met all requirements will soon have their applications granted, as promised under the Pakatan Harapan manifesto.
Full of trust and hope, Aunty M applied again but was told that her 2017-application was still in process. With various attempts to address the issue with the National Registration Department (JPN) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (KDN), Aunty M had to deal with disappointment of the constant answers, ‘Still in process’. A single mother after the passing of her Malaysian husband many years ago, she has to live with the bitter reminder that she does not belong here despite the strong ties she has developed with the country and its people decades after leaving her state and family for her married life in Malaysia. Aunty M’s painful experience is simply the tip of the iceberg since there are many other foreign women who are in similar situations and are suffering in ways that we are oblivious to.
Recently, it was reported that the Home Ministry briefed civil society organisations on the government’s proposed changes to the Federal Constitution’s citizenship provisions, including a proposal to allow Malaysian women to finally pass on their citizenship to their children who were born abroad, just as Malaysian men are already able to do. While this is a welcome trajectory, the government has also proposed an amendment that would cause the foreign wives’ citizenship to be revoked if their marriage to Malaysian men ends within two years of being granted citizenship. On top of these developments, many of us may already be aware of the gendered dimension inherent in Article 15(1) of the Federal Constitution, which addresses the citizenship of wives and children by
registration yet does not allow foreign husbands of Malaysian women to apply for citizenship in the same manner.
It is crucial for us to understand that the rules of the husband’s country of origin that provide that citizenship of such women/ mothers can only be kept while they are married to the Malaysian men are dicey as the termination of their union—whether by death or divorce—will terminate their right to the bestowed citizenship and the crucial protections the citizenship offers. In this situation, a woman will tragically end up being stateless if she has previously renounced her foreign citizenship after which, she may not be permitted to return to her own country nor allowed to stay in Malaysia. Even if she is able to return, she could discover that she is without the rights and privileges that come with nationality.
Such women are additionally highly susceptible to abuse, exploitation and denied access to children who hold a different nationality when they remain foreign, much less stateless. The removing of the current citizenship safeguards thus magnifies the potential implications of violence coming from a marriage, especially if the wives are left with no citizenship as a result of their separation or divorce.
While we fully respect the authority of the Home Minister to table any amendments to the citizenship provisions deemed fit and necessary, we implore the Minister to carefully weigh the potentially grave consequences of such changes. The heavily bureaucratised procedures are already placing huge mental, psychological, financial and practical strains on these women. Any propose amendments must not come at the expense of leaving them and their children more vulnerable to losing human rights protections and facing the truamatising impacts of separation with each other.