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An in-depth look at citizenship and statelessness with lawyer Jasmine Wong

As Malaysia Day looms, stateless individuals residing in this country continue to fight to become citizens. 

This Malaysia Day as we celebrate nationhood, spare a thought for our marginalised brethren and sistren, who continue to endure hardship due to a variety of reasons resulting in them rendered stateless, despite being born and having lived their entire lives in Malaysia – not unlike the rest of us who are legally recognised as citizens of this country, holders of blue identity cards.

Not all are born equal and this notion rings especially true for stateless individuals who are striving their hardest to be recognised. They carry identity cards of a different colour, incessantly discriminated against in their everyday lives. What may seem natural and a basic universal right to us like attending school and going to public health facilities become a chore rigged by red tapes and unfathomable bureaucracies. 

In times of pandemic, their status, or lack thereof, becomes an aggravated issue when they find themselves unable to access healthcare or vaccines. According to the UNHCR, the number of stateless people in Peninsular Malaysia is at least 10,000, while for East Malaysia, the number remains unknown. 

Jasmine Wong
(Photo: Prestige Malaysia)

Many selfless professionals, who are empathetic to their plights, devote their careers to helping these individuals in their bids to become Malaysians. One of them is Jasmine Wong, a lawyer and associate attached with law firm MahWengKwai & Associates. In this interview, she sheds light on citizenship, advocacy for reforms and the quandary faced by these stateless individuals through no fault of their own.

Have the pandemic and its implications on court proceedings borne any effect on your clients' bids to become Malaysian citizens?

When the MCO was first implemented in March 2020, almost everything became standstill. With efforts made to adapt to the online culture, the Judiciary has laid out various protocols for courts to conduct hearings of civil cases virtually. With these adaptations, litigants would not be severely affected as online proceedings are slowly becoming the norm.

However, citizenship applications to the Home Minister under Article 15A of the Federal Constitution experienced otherwise. Since these applications required considerations by the Home Minister, decisions in granting or rejecting the applications needed the physical signatory by the Minister himself. Such practices were undoubtedly delayed, prolonged and caused inconveniences on all related parties as long as the lockdown persisted.

Being stateless or green IC holders, is their access to healthcare and vaccination especially during the pandemic affected perversely?

Access to healthcare has always been a concern. Some healthcare facilities deny these individuals healthcare access for fear of them not being able to settle the costs incurred. Besides, should they be given medical treatment, they were charged exorbitant rates in comparison to Malaysian citizens whose treatment are subsidised by the government.

During the pandemic, those with birth certificates or green IC (MyKAS) were able to get vaccinated. However, the challenges are far greater for those who are undocumented and without any birth certificate as they could not provide any identification for the vaccination registration. Their births were not registered with the National Registration Department for various reasons i.e. they were abandoned by their parents, they were not aware of the importance of registering their births or perhaps they did not know how to do it. With the lack of documentation, it is harder for this group to get vaccinated.

The implementation of the Selvax vaccination program under the Selangor government allowed compromisation of NRIC with phone number as ID. Even with that, it was still a task in convincing the stateless and undocumented to step forward for vaccination as they were sceptical of the treatment they may receive as a result of their status, e.g. the fear of being questioned and detained for not having proper documentation during roadblocks.

Being a lawyer specialising in citizenship among others and passionate about social issues, how do you separate your professional endeavours and your personal feelings?

It is a fine line separating my personal emotions from work. Because at the end of the day, we are all human. You would think that it gets easier all the time, but it never does. I have parents telling me that the government schools refuse to accept their children as students because they are not citizens and do not have MyKID.

My teenage clients would express their frustrations over countless occasions whenever they were questioned for not having MyKAD, e.g. sitting for examinations, not being able to represent the school and/or state for extra-curricular activities. Their feelings amplified in a social setting when they were not able to participate in outings with friends or to the extent of giving up their dreams to study abroad and achieving their ambitions. It is unfortunately uncommon to hear that many of them face depression at some point in their lives.

As for my adult clients, some could not even work to fend for themselves. The lack of awareness on green IC (MyKAS) holders also plays its part. Employers are unnecessarily cautious about hiring individuals who do not have MyKAD or are having MyKAS because they automatically assume that there would be legal problems associated with it.

While authorities do not seem to fully comprehend the concept of statelessness, they conveniently divide individuals into citizens and non-citizens, with statelessness falls under the non-citizen category. Any non-citizen is expected to produce a passport under most circumstances. This has led to challenges in getting married or seeking employment. My clients will not be able to register their marriage because the NRD requires them to produce their passports. And if they were to have children, their children would be stateless as well leading to generations of statelessness.

I always get frustrated with the system because all these problems can be easily solved if only there is political will. But then I would remind myself that I am doing my best to help them, with the hope that one day their lives will change for the better. By raising awareness on this very issue, the public will one day understand and thereby change the general perception towards stateless individuals.

Based on your knowledge and experience, can you share the demographics of the stateless people who are striving to become recognised as citizens?

I usually meet parents who seek Malaysian citizenship for their children, be it their adopted children or their biological children. I would also meet young teenagers who are aware of their citizenship status and had sought legal advice from early on. And lately, because of the pandemic, I have been encountering parents in transnational marriages.

With the closure or restriction in border controls, Malaysian mothers found it harder to return to Malaysia to give birth. Our discriminatory laws dictate that children who were born overseas to Malaysian mothers are not automatically Malaysian citizens. This then set off the whole process of Malaysian mothers seeking to obtain citizenship for their children.

Update: September 9. The Star reported that the High Court ruled in favour of Malaysian mothers, giving their children born abroad the right to citizenship.

What are some of the challenges for the stateless to be recognised as citizens? Does the burden of proof fall on the applicant?

The burden of proof has always been placed on the applicants. The government requires these stateless individuals to produce documentation on the identity of their parents and the details of their parents’ marriage even though it has been made very clear that these individuals were abandoned at birth, or their parents may not necessarily have documentation themselves.

To make things even difficult, some of these stateless individuals are not recognised as citizens merely because their parents were not legally married at the time of their birth. Why should we hinge the question of citizenship on the parents’ marriage, when we can clearly show that one of the child’s parents is a Malaysian citizen?

Theoretically, our Constitution allows those above the age of 21 to apply to be naturalised as a citizen if they have lived in Malaysia for a minimum of 10 years. In reality, the time does not start to run until the applicant is a permanent resident in Malaysia. In order to be a permanent resident, the applicant needs to first produce a passport to apply for an entry permit. So, we would face situations where these individuals have lived in Malaysia for decades, but they can never be naturalised as citizens because of these documentary requirements. Our Constitution appears to provide for naturalisation and prevents statelessness, but in reality, the practical solution is not available.

What are the areas you think our laws can do better at eliminating systemic issues that render people who are born to a Malaysian parent or in their unique circumstances causing them not recognised as citizens?

As long as a child is born to a Malaysian parent, the child should automatically be a Malaysian citizen. It is biased to discriminate against a child’s place of birth or parents, or even to tie the child’s citizenship to when the parents were married. The end result of the current flawed system is that a non-citizen child would have Malaysian siblings just because they were born at the wrong place or time. Our adoption laws should also be amended so that children who were adopted by Malaysian citizens should be granted citizenship.

The inflexible bureaucratic procedures should be omitted, and streamlining the SOPs for the applications should be considered. With the current practices in force, the NRD officers do not provide the application forms to individuals without basic documentation. To put it simply, these individuals’ applications are rejected even before they are allowed to submit an application for the Home Minister’s consideration.

The common rebuttal is that the easing of granting of citizenship would invite a floodgate of foreign children to apply for citizenship. However, statelessness in Malaysia is a homegrown and internal issue because a lot of these children were born in Malaysia. They do not know any other country apart from Malaysia. They are stateless by no fault of their own.

Professionally, how do you quantify success?

Success is very subjective and ever evolving. It would be a success if our unequal citizenship laws can be amended and reformed – as long as children are born to one Malaysian parent, regardless of whether they were born within or outside of Malaysia, they should automatically be recognised as Malaysian citizens. When we stop hearing of such discrimination, that is success.

Over the years, my work has grown on me, and I cannot advocate enough the discrimination faced by these individuals due to old and outdated laws. So long as I am able to help people at various levels on a daily basis and continue to be the voice for these stateless individuals, that is success to me on a personal level.

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Hero and featured images by Yannis H on Unsplash

Justin Ng
Digital Content Director, Kuala Lumpur
Often think of myself as a journalist and so I delve deeper into a range of topics. Talk to me about current affairs, watches, travel, drinks, new experiences and more importantly, the business, economics and dynamics behind it.