Malaysia's unequal citizenship laws are leaving families in distress


MAIN Sathees has been separated from his son for a year and can only afford to come to Malaysia for brief visits because he needs to work to sustain his family.

Naveena Somasundaram grew up believing that women hold up half the sky. She was able to exercise her equal right to an education and graduated with a law degree. She also believed that, no matter what, her country would “always have my back”.

But for the past one year, the family life of this 34-year-old lawyer and mother-of-two has been torn asunder by an unequal law that discriminates against women in passing on their citizenship to their children.

Naveena and her husband have been separated from their 19-month-old son, Thevvin, who is stateless because her application to pass on her citizenship to him is still pending.

Malaysian men who are married to foreign spouses who give birth to their children abroad need to merely notify the Malaysian government and, in just a matter of days or a few weeks, their children will be granted citizenship by operation of the law, through Article 14 of the federal constitution.

But Malaysian women who are married to foreign spouses and have their children overseas are required by law to apply for their children’s citizenship according to Article 15 of the constitution. They then have to wait – they are told that the process of review would take two years but some mothers have been waiting for eight years.

Naveena moved to France in 2013 after marrying her husband. The couple have two children, Rivvan, who is three, and Thevvin. Her husband, Sathees Kumar Kirupalan, is a Sri Lankan refugee who has resettled in France, and their sons do not have the option of taking on their father’s citizenship.

Naveena Somasundaram: It's absurd for Malaysian women not to have equal rights to confer citizenship.

It has been a year now since Naveena submitted Thevvin’s application along with a letter to home minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, pleading for her case to be expedited because of their extraordinary situation. And she has heard nothing about the application.

It has taken Naveena by surprise because she went through the same procedure with her elder son, and his application was approved in four months. “But with Thevvin, we have heard nothing. In the last year, I have been to the Home Ministry at least a dozen times, but each time I am told to just wait,” she said.

To spend time with Thevvin, Naveena flies back every few months with her elder son Rivvan. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“One KDN officer questioned my loyalty to the country and asked me why they should give my son citizenship and how certain can they be that my children are being brought up the ‘Malaysian way’. I don’t think my loyalty should be questioned just because I chose to travel and experience life abroad for a number of years.

“I know that the ministry has many applications to process and that each one is important. I know that processes take time but this is an extraordinary situation. I need to have an indication, at the very least, of how long it will take instead of living in uncertainty,” explains Naveena who came back to Malaysia last September when her father fell critically ill.

Thevvin travelled here with her on an emergency passport issued by the Malaysian embassy in Paris, valid for a single journey. “It was a risk I had to take to see my dad who was dying. It’s my duty as a daughter, no matter where I reside,” relates Naveena whose father passed away last December.

But Thevvin can’t fly back to France because he is stateless and has no passport. To get a passport, he’d need to get his mother’s Malaysian citizenship. No one has been able to give his family any indication of the outcome of Thevvin’s application for citizenship, and this leaves them in a terrible limbo.

Lives in limbo

Naveena has had to leave her baby under the care of her 72-year-old mother (who has severe arthritis) and her sisters (who have families of their own) and return to France to care for her elder son Rivvan who has started school. She has been flying back to Malaysia every couple of months to see her baby.

“I don’t know how long we can go on this way. Thevvin gets very upset each time his brother and I go back to France. I don’t call him or video chat with him because when he sees me or hears my voice, he cries.

“My savings are depleted because every time I come back, I fly home with Rivvan too – that’s two flight tickets every couple of months. I have had to ask for money from my sisters. How is this possible?

“And what about Thevvin’s father who has been separated from him for a year. He has come to Malaysia twice for short visits but he works as an electrician in France ...we are not rich. I don’t know how long more we can go on like this.

“I have told my husband to stop work to be with Rivvan while I come back here to be with Thevvin but he says he can’t afford to quit. We’re not on the verge of divorce but this has caused us a lot of stress and we are arguing,” says Naveena, fighting back tears as she thinks of the hopelessness of her situation.

Meanwhile, Thevvin is stateless. He can’t be with his parents and his older brother because he isn’t a citizen. And should he fall ill, he will not have access to public healthcare. And, if the process drags on, he will not have access to education.

The law must change 

Naveena's sons, Rivvan and Thevvin, came to Malaysia using a temporary passport that clearly states that they are Malaysian citizens.

Naveena is one of many Malaysian mothers affected by the seemingly arbitrary execution of this law that discriminates against women. The Malaysian Campaign for Equal Citizenship is calling for the constitution to be amended to give Malaysian women equal rights in conferring nationality to their children.

“This is a legacy from our colonial past. It is a patriarchal law that was constructed at a time when women didn’t have choices but to follow their husbands wherever they went,” said campaign advisor Ivy Josiah at the launch of the campaign in Petaling Jaya last week.

“In Malaysia today, women have choices. Women work and sometimes they work abroad and for various reasons, they give birth to children abroad. They deserve the same privilege as Malaysian men to give their nationality to their children.”

Women, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister Hannah Yeoh, who was at the launch, agreed and gave her word to all affected mothers that her ministry would push for this constitutional change.

Describing the law as a “bad law”, Yeoh said that her ministry had already initiated meetings with the home ministry and the foreign ministry to push for not just constitutional change but also changes in the application process to make it easier for women to apply for citizenship in the interim.

Some of the affected mothers pose with Yeoh at the launch of the Malaysian Campaign for Equal Citizenship.

DAP veteran leader and Iskandar Puteri MP Lim Kit Siang has since expressed the support of the party’s 42 parliamentarians for the amendment of the law. While the support of Yeoh and the DAP MPs offer some comfort to the affected mothers, many are questioning the stance of the home minister whose absence at the launch of the campaign was glaring.

Although invited to the event, neither he nor his representatives were present and this, more than anything, was disheartening. “Where is the home minister? It is great that YB Hannah is supporting this but where is the home minister? He holds the Ace card here,” asked one mother at the launch.

In July, Muhyiddin said that citizenship application processes would be made easier and take into consideration the welfare of the children involved. However, he maintained that applications would be reviewed in accordance to the provisions of the constitution.

Firdaus Husni: If Malaysia is serious about making gender equality a priority, we have to amend laws that discriminate against women.

This simply isn’t enough, says the Malaysian Centre of Constitutionalism and Human Rights’ chief human rights strategist Firdaus Husni. “If Malaysian is to become a country that empowers women to take up position in boards and also leadership roles in public and political spheres, the constitution has to change,” she says.

“It is great that Malaysia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) but Malaysia has placed reservations on article nine of the convention which pertains to the equal rights of men and women in regards to the nationality of their children. If we are serious in making gender equality a priority, then we have to remove this reservation.”

Firdaus adds that speeding up standard operating procedures of the application process will not bring lasting change to the problems faced by affected mothers.

“With administrative procedures, enforcement will always be an issue. Also, how do you made sure that all the embassies around the world have a unified process and procedure that can provide certainty to these mothers,” says Firdaus.

“There is still no guarantee for them unless the constitution is amended and the law is changed to give mothers the same privilege as fathers.”

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