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Putrajaya pushes on with plan to remove citizenship protection for abandoned kids, disadvantaged groups

Experts and activists have urged the government against bundling five 'regressive' amendments with the much welcomed amendment to grant equal rights to Malaysian mothers.

3 minute read
Experts warn that a number of constitutional amendments on citizenship will place stateless children at an even greater disadvantage.
Experts warn that a number of constitutional amendments on citizenship will place stateless children at an even greater disadvantage.

The government has ignored repeated pleas and warnings from activists and experts involved in the plight of stateless people, with home ministry officials to place details of a controversial plan to change several citizenship laws before the Conference of Rulers.

The Malay rulers are currently convening a three-day meeting at Istana Negara, where five controversial constitutional amendments related to citizenship are among the proposals for which the government is hoping to get royal consent before they are tabled in Parliament.

The amendments, described by activists as regressive due to their potential to dash the hopes of tens of thousands of stateless children as well as add to their ranks, have been packaged together with the much welcomed amendment to grant Malaysian mothers equal rights with fathers in the matter of granting citizenship to their children.

That amendment was praised by affected parents as well as activists who have long fought for equal rights.

But earlier this year, dozens of organisations and activists involved in the fight for equal citizenship warned Putrajaya against pushing for several other amendments, likening it to taking "one step forward but 10 steps backward".

More recently, they launched the #100 campaign, hoping to mobilise 100 people who represent different groups in Malaysian society to stop the amendments.

What are the five amendments?

The five constitutional amendments include two provisions where the government is seeking to change the granting of automatic citizenship by "operation of law" to "registration", which essentially removes the constitutional protection for foundlings and abandoned children, as well as children born out of wedlock and adopted and abandoned stateless children, including from Orang Asli communities.

This is in contrast with two-thirds of the 193 UN-member states, including those in the Middle East and Asean, which currently grant citizenship to children with unknown parentage or unclear details of birth.

"The amendment will subject foundlings to discretionary citizenship, and unreasonably place the burden of proof on the child as to its parentage. Moreover, the process of registration is ridden with delays, and there is no guarantee of approval," said Radha Govil of Australian-based Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness.

Another proposal concerns Part II, Article 14(1)(b) Section 1(a), to remove the words "permanent resident", barring children born to Malaysian permanent residents who are stateless from automatic citizenship, creating "a second generation and a new class of statelessness".

"This amendment will be detrimental to existing stateless communities, including Orang Asli and Orang Asal in Malaysia," Govil said.

The fourth amendment is to revoke the citizenship of foreign wives of Malaysians if they divorce fewer than two years after being granted citizenship.

Critics say the amendments could victimise spouses who are trapped in domestic violence as well as render them stateless as they would have given up their previous citizenship when accepting Malaysian citizenship.

Experts also urge authorities to defer another amendment which would affect stateless child applicants.

The amendment seeks to reduce the age limit from 21 years to 18 for the purpose of obtaining citizenship, thereby shortening the time available for process and appeals.

Govil said the move would put young people at a disadvantage.

"Currently, the time taken to process citizenship applications is fraught with bureaucratic delays, and one application cycle can take up to or longer than five years before it is typically rejected (without grounds), and the applicant must resubmit the application," he added.

Another activist recently slammed the plan to remove the current constitutional protection for abandoned children and foundlings, calling it an example of "double play and doublespeak" on the part of the government.

Sharmila Sekaran said instead of fulfilling the government's constitutional obligations, the home ministry had resorted to "fearmongering" about how granting citizenship to these categories of people would open the floodgates to foreigners becoming citizens.

"There is zero example or evidence that this is going to happen," Sharmila, of NGO Voice of Children, told business station BFM.

Meanwhile Robyn Choi of National Human Rights Society, or Hakam, said the newly increased population of stateless children meant the government would be placing them in special shelters, for which Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently announced a RM10 million budget.

Choy said she hoped the bill would be denied a two-third's majority in the Dewan Rakyat, adding that the combination of Muda's sole MP with the Perikatan Nasional bloc would make this possible.