Sitting on a wooden plank outside her house in a small coastal village in Sarawak, 14-year-old Kuntum (not her real name) pretends to be a teacher, talking to a family of cats about what they would like to be when they grow up.
For as long as she can remember, she has wanted to be a teacher. But as one of tens of thousands of stateless children in the country, the odds of this happening are slim.
Kuntum, whose father is a Malaysian, lives with her grandparents in a tiny wooden house in Maludam. For many years, they have tried to apply for citizenship for her, to no avail. Attempt after attempt has been rejected despite repeated inquiries.
The reason for rejection is always the same: a lack of proper documentation.
“There are many forms to fill, many steps to prove that she was born here and has been with us since she was small,” Kuntum’s grandmother, Juani, told MalaysiaNow.
“Her father, my son, is Malaysian and her mother is an Indonesian citizen. Kuntum is their child but they were not married. That is why she can’t get citizenship.”
Without citizenship, Kuntum cannot attend public schools or access basic facilities like healthcare and government assistance.
The many years of trying and failing have left their mark on the young girl, who dropped out of school three years ago to help her grandparents earn a living after watching them struggle to put food on the table each day.
She now works eight hours a day at a grocery store in a nearby village, cleaning and keeping the shelves organised. Sometimes she works for 10 hours, wearing only slippers on her feet and carrying loads far too heavy for a child of her age.
She earns anywhere from RM12 to RM24 per day, depending on how much work she can get done. Each day, she adds her meagre wages to those of her grandfather, who makes RM500 a month as a mechanic.
Unless she can become a legally documented citizen, this will likely be Kuntum’s life for years to come.
Her mother returned to Indonesia long ago and her father refuses to take responsibility for her.
“He does not even understand the role of father,” Juani said.
“He has rarely reached out to us. He now lives with his new wife and children in Simunjan.”
Aware of her age, Juani’s main concern is what will happen to her granddaughter once she and her husband are no longer around.
“Kuntum is very kind and hardworking. But what will happen to her if we are not here one day? I’m so worried about her future,” she said.
Kuntum herself knows that without citizenship, there is nothing she can do to improve her situation.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said she must learn to accept her fate as a stateless person.
“Sometimes my friends ask me, ‘Why did you drop out? Why are you not at school?’
“Because I don’t have an IC. If you want me to go to school, help me get an IC and then I can go.”
But behind the defiant words is a palpable fear of what lies ahead. As she describes her frustrations, tears begin rolling down her cheeks.
Wiping her eyes, she speaks of one simple hope: “I dream that one day I can go back to school.”