Cease the rhetoric on citizenship

A PROPOSAL that Malaysian children be required to learn the Malay language before they are given the “blue” identity cards for citizenship was recently reported. A university lecturer suggested that children who cannot speak Malay would only be given “red” identity cards until they are able to speak the language.

This proposal comes after a long stream of ethno-nationalist rhetoric on citizenship. Demands have been made before this for some to be stripped of their citizenship, purportedly for being “disloyal” or “traitorous”. Usually such calls are made as a direct response to dissent against the government of the day.

The act of questioning or calling for the revocation of citizenship is born out of the misconceived notion that certain Malaysians are citizens by virtue of their “birthright” as “natives” of the land, while others were “granted” citizenship by the grace of those with this “birthright”.

Provisions relating to citizenship are found in Part III of the Federal Constitution. There are essentially two broad types of Malaysian citizens.

The first type is those who are citizens “by operation of law”. They become citizens “automatically” when they are born, without the need to acquire citizenship through a formal process. An example would be those who are born within Malaysia who have at least one Malaysian parent, regardless of race or religion. Most Malaysians are citizens “by operation of law”.

The second group comprises those who acquire citizenship through a formal process, either registration or naturalisation. They are not born Malaysians. They are citizens of other countries before acquiring Malaysian citizenship.

Citizens of the first type cannot be stripped of their citizenship because of “disloyalty” or “treason”. They can only lose their citizenship if they voluntarily give it up, if they acquire the citizenship of another country or if they exercise a right in another country which is exclusive to citizens of that country.

It would thus be unconstitutional to impose conditions on these citizens, such as a requirement to speak the national language, in order for them to obtain an identity card. Such a move would violate their rights as citizens.

For the second type of citizens, they are indeed liable to have their citizenship revoked by the Federal Government if they are proven to be disloyal or for other circumstances.

It must be emphasised that race or ethnicity has nothing to do with the type of citizen you are.

From these constitutional provisions, it is clear that for the vast majority of Malaysians irrespective of race or religion, citizenship is guaranteed and protected by the Federal Constitution. The status of their citizenship should not be questioned.

Any attempt to invoke a misguided sense of racial “birthright” as a way to differentiate between different citizens ignores the constitutional reality; that for many, citizenship is a right, not a boon from the State.

The rhetoric on citizenship should stop. No one has a better “right” to citizenship compared to his or her fellow Malaysian. Regardless of how we historically came to define who is a citizen of this nation, we are all now citizens of this country.

Each of us have an equal stake and an equal say in the country. Each of us has a place under the Malaysian sun.

Syahredzan Johan is a partner of a legal firm in Kuala Lumpur with an interest in the laws that shape our country. He can be reached at syahredzan.johan@gmail.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Syahredzan Johan , columnist


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