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Is Malaysia set to become the pariah of the Muslim world?

Yes, if our MPs foolishly vote in favour of constitutional amendments that take away the citizenship rights of foundlings and orphans.

Abdar Rahman Koya
4 minute read
Proposed changes to remove gender discrimination in the of granting citizenship to children born to Malaysian mothers abroad will not affect the plight of thousands of stateless children.
Proposed changes to remove gender discrimination in the of granting citizenship to children born to Malaysian mothers abroad will not affect the plight of thousands of stateless children.

Muslims have always been taught the importance of protecting and caring for orphans. 

The word "orphans" is mentioned in the Quran 23 times. One of the chapters, Surah al-Ma'un, warns about the obligation to care for them, reminding Muslims that there is no use performing prayers if they abandon this specific command on protecting orphans.

These verses do not state that an orphan should be of a particular type or a certain nationality or race, an illegitimate child, a refugee, a blue-eyed girl or a curly-haired African boy. They simply refer to the unfortunate little human beings in our midst.

These verses came to the Arabian society of the sixth century, where lineage meant everything and status meant belonging to a tribe; where everybody had to be called "the son of so-and-so", while abandoned children and foundlings – orphans whose lineage was unknown – were regarded as the lowest of the low.

Orphans do not have natural protectors – parents. From birth and throughout childhood, they are left at the mercy of the state and society. 

Countries can make their life a living hell by denying them the rights given to any other child. 

Or, they can protect them so that they grow into normal adults, with access to education, healthcare, jobs and some of the most important things that we take for granted: bank accounts, loans, property, cars and passports, not to mention the opportunity to have families of their own through marriage. 

The reality today is that those who are deprived of citizenship live miserable lives. And so, people who seek to migrate or abandon their homelands are very careful about securing citizenship, so much so that they engage the service of lawyers to ensure that they do not end up stateless in the country where they choose to settle down. 

Some of us might imagine caring for orphans through visits to orphanages, cheering them up, taking them to the park, and – for narcisstic politicians – parading them on-stage for the presentation of ang pows and duit raya. 

But how does a government, and one that professes to follow Islamic values at that, fulfil the Quranic obligation to care for orphans?

In a modern-day nation-state, rights for orphans can only be given through citizenship. These rights are enshrined in every country in the world, whether dictatorships or monarchies, secular states that recognise gay marriage, or those that follow a strict Islamic system. 

So too Malaysia, where Section 19B of the constitution provides that a foundling – in other words, an orphan – may have all of the citizenship rights listed above in order to live a normal, independent life. 

This right is spelt out in the constitution so that no child that is abandoned at birth will have to suffer as an orphan. It is not something to be conferred by a minister, let alone one whose survival depends on votes and who might use this power for his own political agenda come every election.

All this is about to change through an unthinkable move by none other than Malaysia's biggest noisemaker of reforms and human rights: Pakatan Harapan. 

Through a series of constitutional amendments, the government wants to remove this universal principle: the right of foundlings and orphans to automatic citizenship.

The government argues that the current provision opens the floodgates to illegals and refugees who will abandon their babies. That is as good as saying that people should shoo away orphans asking for food at their doorstep because it would encourage thousands of other orphans to come begging outside their homes.

An evil person avoids kindness by conjuring up all sorts of imaginary repercussions. And this is exactly what Saifuddin Nasution – the un-elected home minister who once boasted to an Indonesian audience about how he was proud to be a Malaysian minister with Sumatran lineage – is doing.

Why Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is proceeding with these amendments boggles the mind, especially given that major Muslim countries maintain the citizenship rights of foundlings, and even those who never had such rights have added them in recent years. 

UmrahHaji-MNow-180123-3In 2021, for example, Saudi Arabia, often depicted as following "strict Islam", declared that children born to unknown parents in the kingdom would be considered citizens. It was a relief for more than 12,000 Saudi families who foster such children. 

And yet, it did not alarm the Saudis despite the fact that there are millions of foreigners and illegal immigrants that are hard to trace in crowded cities such as Mecca and Medina. This single declaration led to an increase in the number of people wanting to adopt orphans, and the ultimate plan is to shut down orphanages so that orphans grow up in a proper family setting and not in an institution that separates them from society.

Similarly, Turkiye, despite its strict citizenship rules, and despite its borders that attract millions of refugees, has no qualms about recognising foundlings, whether or not their lineage is known, as long as they are born in the country.

From Tunisia to Indonesia, the list of Muslim countries that guarantees citizenship rights for foundlings and orphans is endless. This category has always been spared the otherwise strict and stringent citizenship requirements.

So where do these amendments place Malaysia in the larger Islamic world? Quick answer: we will become an international pariah detached from both universal values and the rest of the Muslim world.

Anwar and his fellow ruling politicians should take seriously the Quranic warnings about usurping the rights of orphans, or be prepared for the consequences. 

As for Perikatan Nasional, which professes to be the defenders of Islam, not only do they have a fundamental duty as Muslims to keep their hands off what belongs to orphans, they should not allow themselves to be duped by people like Saifuddin.

"Nay! But you treat not the orphans with kindness and generosity." (Surah al-Fajr, 89:17)