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Being Malay, and stateless in Malaysia

Statelessness is a problem as many parents do not register their marriage or their children.

Syaza Norazharuddin & Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
2 minute read
Kak Yana (not hear real name) speaks to MalaysiaNow about life as a stateless family in Lembah Subang, Petaling Jaya.
Kak Yana (not hear real name) speaks to MalaysiaNow about life as a stateless family in Lembah Subang, Petaling Jaya.

In a row of low-cost flats in Lembah Subang, Petaling Jaya, live a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and migrant families.

The narrow roads outside the units are filled with cars and motorcycles double-parked along the curbs, and piles of garbage lie scattered about as clouds of flies hover overhead.

Small shops, many of them closed and abandoned, line the cramped streets.

Kak Yana (not her real name) has lived here with her six children for 18 years. A foreigner, she was married to a Malaysian man who died of Covid-19 last year.

Now, she and her children are alone – but a more pressing problem is, they are not registered as Malaysian citizens.

The low-cost flats in Lembah Subang, Ara Damansara, that Kak Yana and her children have called home for years now.

While the law automatically grants children citizenship if their parents are married and their father is a Malaysian, Yana has been unable to provide the authorities with her marriage certificate.

She cannot give them the names of those who witnessed her marriage, either.

“How can I recall their names when my marriage was over 24 years ago?” she said.

Some have approached her, offering to provide her with a certificate of marriage – if she pays RM7,000. But she is too scared to take them up.

“What happens if I am caught?”

In these small, grubby flats, young people often end up working in the gig economy, taking any job they can get. But many of them are like Yana’s children – stateless – and lack the official documents required by employers.

No IC, no birth cert

At the Lembah Subang flats alone, about 20 families are stateless. Without birth certificates or ICs, they are often mistaken for asylum seekers, refugees or migrants even though they were born in Malaysia.

They are among an estimated one million stateless people across the country, 10,000 of whom are believed to be in the peninsula.

The chairman of the neighbourhood surau, a community leader who actively works to help the stateless community there, is familiar with the problem.

“These people are Malaysians,” he told MalaysiaNow. “They were born here but they do not have enough documentation to claim their citizenship.”

In many cases, the children are stateless because their Malaysian parent was not aware or simply did not apply for their citizenship.

In other cases, the parents did not register their marriage according to Malaysian law.

Without an IC, they have no access to even basic government services, education or other public facilities. If they fall ill, they cannot seek treatment at government hospitals.

All too often, statelessness is passed down from one generation to the next.

But Yana is doing all she can to break the cycle. Her best hope for her 18-year-old daughter is that she will marry a Malaysian.

“Being married to a Malaysian is the only way for my daughter to obtain a red identity card legally,” she said.

“She has a work permit, she can start a career and her own children will not be stateless.”