Priscilla was 25 years old when she left her home town in Melaka and boarded a plane to Europe to marry a Frenchman.
For five years, she lived in a remote village in France where her husband, who was in the French army, was stationed. Together, they had two daughters.
In 2010, though, Priscilla filed for divorce. After winning custody of her children, she returned to Malaysia, hoping that the country she still called home would provide a better life for them than they would have had in France.
But she did not anticipate the multitude of problems she would face in giving them that new life.
Neither of her daughters had Malaysian citizenship and there was little Priscilla could do about it. While the Federal Constitution gives Malaysian men married to foreign women the automatic right to confer citizenship on children born abroad, nothing is said about Malaysian women in similar positions.
As a result, Malaysian women who marry foreigners and have children overseas have faced mountains of red tape in bringing those children home.
“The court decision was a positive step towards ending gender discrimination against Malaysian mothers and a ruling that was in the best interest of the child.”
Without citizenship, they must apply for a long-term visitor visa and renew these every two years. If the passes are not renewed on time, their children must leave the country every three months.
“But even to get the visas sometimes can take months,” Priscilla told MalaysiaNow.
The process has been further complicated by the Covid-19 crisis, which forced many procedures online.
Meanwhile, children like Priscilla’s have zero access to the free education, healthcare or government assistance available to those who possess Malaysian citizenship.
All of these costs add up, laying a huge burden on the shoulders of the women struggling to give their children the same rights which others receive as a matter of course.
Last week, they celebrated a landmark ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court which said that the word “father” in the constitution must be read to include mothers, thereby allowing children of Malaysian women born overseas the right to automatic citizenship by operation of law.
However, the government later filed an appeal against the decision, sparking a strong reaction including from ministers Zuraida Kamaruddin, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar and Annuar Musa.
Bina Ramanand, cofounder of the Foreign Spouses Support Group, Malaysia, said the appeal was a “huge step backwards” for Malaysian women.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said the government should have taken the opportunity to end gender discrimination in this regard.
“There has been a huge outcry not just by the affected mothers, but by the larger population of Malaysian women all over the world,” she said.
“The court decision was a positive step towards ending gender discrimination against Malaysian mothers and a ruling that was in the best interest of the child. After all, aren’t Malaysian women and children a part of the Malaysian Family?” she added, using a phrase introduced by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in his first speech after being sworn into office.
For now, it appears as though the tedious process of applying for citizenship and visas must continue as other costs mount up for education and healthcare.
Bina said the Covid-19 pandemic had further underscored the need to resolve the issue as some mothers overseas have been unable to return to Malaysia due to the entry restrictions on foreign nationals – in this case, their children.
“Some have chosen to remain in toxic marriages due to the greater legal security for their children, heightening their risk of gender-based violence,” she said, adding that applications had also been rejected without reason after long periods of waiting.
Some women have given up and left the country.
But Priscilla continues to wait and hope, praying for the day that her children will be allowed to remain as citizens.
“My daughters are very Malaysian in heart and soul,” she said. “Yes, their father is French but that’s their father.
“How can they be French, they cannot even speak French. They speak Malay, English and a bit of Mandarin because they learn this at school.”
When asked about her ambition, one of the girls told MalaysiaNow that she wants to be a chef – “in Malaysia”, the 11-year-old added.
It remains to be seen if her dream will ever come true.