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Shame on PH, says Ambiga as protest mounts over plan to amend citizenship laws

The former Bar Council president tells government not to 'mess with the constitution' by denying citizenship rights for stateless people.

3 minute read
Latheefa Koya, Ambiga Sreenevasan (3rd left) and N Surendran (far right) with four stateless persons during a joint press conference in Petaling Jaya today.
Latheefa Koya, Ambiga Sreenevasan (3rd left) and N Surendran (far right) with four stateless persons during a joint press conference in Petaling Jaya today.

A group of prominent lawyers and activists have joined the chorus of condemnation for the government's plan to revoke citizenship rights for abandoned children and foundlings, ahead of the tabling of a controversial constitutional amendment in the Dewan Rakyat where ruling MPs have been warned to toe the line.

They say the plan is a further disgrace to Pakatan Harapan (PH), which had pledged reforms before coming to power in the 2022 polls following cooperation with Umno. 

Former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan said it was shameful for the PH coalition government to pursue the amendments, urging instead a focus on efforts to implement the promised institutional reforms. 

"They think they can change whatever they want. They must be stopped," Ambiga, who once led the Bersih coalition, said at a joint press conference also attended by former Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief Latheefa Koya and former PKR MP N Surendran.

"We are waiting for the other reforms. And what are they doing? They are going after the babies!" said Ambiga, referring to five of the amendments which have triggered criticism for effectively removing the right to automatic citizenship for abandoned children.

Latheefa meanwhile slammed the government for proceeding with such amendments despite promising to solve the issue of statelessness.

"The current government not only promised, but they also joined us in protests in 2012 and 2018 where their manifesto carried a specific clause on statelessness," said Latheefa, a rights lawyer who is part of the Lawyers for Liberty group which has been championing the rights of stateless people.

She also hit out at attempts by government leaders to shift the blame to the palace.

"Don't try to push these amendments by saying you are under pressure from the royalty. Don't blame the royalty for this."

At the heart of the condemnation is the government's proposal to amend Sections 1(b), 1(c) and Part II of the Second Schedule of the Federal Constitution, which has been packaged with a much welcomed amendment to give equal rights to Malaysian mothers married to foreigners when it comes to automatic citizenship for children born abroad.

The plan has alarmed rights groups who point out the increasing number of stateless children in the country, who have been denied citizenship despite being born to Malaysian parents. 

If passed, the amendments will effectively remove the automatic granting of citizenship to abandoned babies or orphans born in the country, whose mother or parents cannot be traced, while those previously entitled to citizenship under the constitution would be at the mercy of the home minister. 

Critics have over the years noted how thousands suffer in silence as stateless people, denied public health services, education and job opportunities, while orphans and abandoned children – many of whom are born out of wedlock – are victimised for life.

They warn that any repeal of the current provisions would remove the safety net for these individuals and create a large new class of stateless people.

'Don't mess with the constitution'

Ambiga said the government should stop "messing with the constitution".

"I strongly suggest that they withdraw the amendments," she added.

Latheefa meanwhile questioned the government's commitment to its own slogan of "Madani", asking why not a single minister or ruling MP had objected to the amendments and reminding them that they had been vocal against the oppression of stateless groups.