In the corner of a room in a shoplot in Sarawak, four-year-old Rayyan (not his real name) sits playing with two small toy cars.
He pushes them around on the floor, holding them in his chubby hands and imitating the noise of real cars on the road.
Like most young children, he is protective of his toys and used to get upset whenever he saw his two-month-old cousin holding any of them.
His uncle, with whom he lives, has been patiently encouraging him to share. Now, Rayyan is happy to hand over his toys to his cousin, whom he thinks of as his little brother.
For Rayyan, his cousin, uncle and aunt are all the family he knows. He was sent to live with them after his mother one day vanished out of the blue.
“His mother ran away with her boyfriend who was hooked on drugs,” Rayyan’s uncle, Zaid, told MalaysiaNow.
“His father was already gone by then. He disappeared a few months before Rayyan was born.”
Both Rayyan’s parents were Malaysian. His mother, the sister of Rayyan’s uncle, was Bajau and his father was Chinese. But the very big problem staring this small person in the face is the fact that they were not married when they had him.
This means that Rayyan, who does not even have a birth certificate, is considered stateless.
He lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin in a small rented room on the first floor of a shoplot in Bintulu.
“He was born on the cement floor of the factory where his mother worked,” Zaid recalled.
He and his wife do everything they can to raise the boy, but despite their best efforts, having entered the world in such bleak circumstances, Rayyan will live the rest of his life in limbo unless he can somehow obtain citizenship.
These days, it is a struggle for Zaid just to put food on the table. As a day labourer, he did well enough until the arrival of Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdowns.
For months, he did what he could to make ends meet until the next day.
Each morning now, he walks to a spot beside an expressway where he waits for building and maintenance contractors who are looking for workers. If he is lucky, he can make RM50 to RM80 a day, carrying bricks, cutting grass and doing other menial labour.
Most days, though, he comes home empty-handed. He is now three months behind in rent and his tiny family faces the daily threat of eviction.
The pressure grew after his wife gave birth to their son, as his meagre wages now had to stretch to cover the expenses of a newborn as well.
Zaid no longer knows how long he can continue raising Rayyan. He is considering sending the boy to Sabah, to live with his grandparents in their village which Zaid himself left seven years ago.
“I could take care of him if I had a job with a steady income,” he said. “But with the baby and the financial constraints, I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to continue staying with me here in Bintulu.
“If he goes back to Sabah, at least he will be safe and looked after.”
But without a birth certificate, it is unlikely that Rayyan will be able to make the flight back to his mother’s hometown.
Even in Bintulu, Zaid seldom takes Rayyan out of the house, fearing that the child will be arrested or deported for being stateless.
While he wants to apply for citizenship for his nephew, his financial constraints make this next to impossible.
“We do not want bad things to happen to him,” he said. “I hope that he will become a good man one day, because he is a bright boy who learns quickly.”
Sitting in his corner, Rayyan shows how he can count from one to 10.
“I like to watch Upin and Ipin,” he said. “And BoBoiBoy, too.”
But no matter how smart he is, it remains to be seen how far he will be able to go in life in a country where, for all intents and purposes, he does not legally exist.