KUALA LUMPUR: The government has been urged to reform the country's citizenship laws, to allow equal right for Malaysian men and women to confer Malaysian nationality on their spouses and children.
The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) said at the moment there were three main provisions in Malaysia’s nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of gender.
It said firstly, the Federal Constitution guarantees citizenship to children born overseas to Malaysian fathers, but is silent on children born overseas to Malaysian mothers.
"Consequently, many Malaysian mothers are unable to secure Malaysian citizenship for their children born overseas."
Secondly, JAG said the Federal Constitution does not allow for Malaysian fathers to confer nationality on their children who are not born within a legally recognised marriage.
"These children then face great difficulties enrolling in school, accessing public healthcare, and finding employment later in life."
Finally, it said the Federal Constitution allows foreign spouses of Malaysian men citizenship by registration, if they fulfil several criteria, including residing in Malaysia for two years.
"However, foreign spouses of Malaysian women can only apply for citizenship by naturalisation, after residing in Malaysia for 10 years".
These discriminatory laws have a real impact on the lives of many Malaysians and their families.
Shasha, Dan, and Tina (not their real names) are among the many affected by these laws.
“I had been seconded by a multi-national company to work in the Philippines for a temporary assignment, when I gave birth to my son,” said Shasha, a communications specialist.
“I applied for my son’s citizenship at the Malaysian Embassy in 2017, but I was told that he cannot be registered as a Malaysian because I gave birth to him abroad. It’s quite painful that just by serving my company and trying to earn a living, I can’t pass on my citizenship to my son when I’ve always planned to live in Malaysia with my family.”
Her frustrations were shared by Dan, a Malaysian father of three.
"My eldest son was born prior to our marriage which was delayed due to our lack of financial resources and some technicalities. He has two younger brothers who are Malaysians, and at school, he is not given health check-ups, vaccinations, or loaned textbooks, which are provided to Malaysian children. He feels excluded and ashamed that he is treated differently,” said Dan.
Dan has been persistently applying for citizenship for his eldest son, who is now eight years old, but his efforts have been fruitless so far.
Meanwhile, for Tina, a Malaysian post-graduate student who is married to a non-citizen husband, the difficulty in securing residence for her husband has put their lives in limbo.
“We plan to have another child after I graduate. However, if the process for permanent residence and citizenship is not made any easier, then we will always have to live in uncertainty as to what will happen next,” said Tina.
“We will never be able to plan to buy a house or set up a permanent business or carry out our responsibilities and duties as law-abiding citizens, working in the best interest of our family.”
JAG said these discriminatory laws, which affect the lives of many Malaysians and their families, are inconsistent with the spirit of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees equality and prohibits gender discrimination.
"In a democracy based on rule-of-law, all citizens must be treated as equal before the law and, thus, be given equal right to confer nationality on their children and spouses, regardless of gender."
JAG urged the government to table amendments to nationality laws during this Parliamentary session, in tandem with other proposed amendments to the Federal Constitution.
Malaysia’s discriminatory nationality law also conflicts with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which Malaysia has ratified.
In 2018, the UN CEDAW Committee urged the Malaysian Government to “amend all provisions of the Federal Constitution that deny women equal rights with respect to the transmission of their nationality to their children and foreign spouses.”
If Malaysia does not reform its nationality laws, it would be left behind, as more and more countries move to eliminate gender discrimination in their nationality laws.
Currently, Malaysia is one of only three countries in the world that deny men equal right in conferring nationality on children who are not born within a legally recognised marriage, and one of only 25 countries that deny women the right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men.