Allow Equal Right for Malaysian Men and Women to Confer Nationality on Spouses and Children

Originally published in the New Strait Times, March 25, 2019. 

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) urges the government to reform Malaysia’s nationality laws, to allow equal right for Malaysian men and women to confer nationality on their spouses and children.

Currently, there are three provisions in Malaysia’s nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of gender.

Firstly, the Federal Constitution guarantees citizenship to children born overseas to Malaysian fathers, but is silent on children born overseas to Malaysian mothers. Consequently, many Malaysian mothers are unable to secure Malaysian citizenship for their children born overseas.

Secondly, the Federal Constitution does not allow for Malaysian fathers to confer nationality on children born out of a legally recognised marriage. These children then face great difficulties enrolling in school, accessing public healthcare, and finding employment later in life.

Thirdly, the Federal Constitution allows foreign spouses of Malaysian men citizenship by registration, if they fulfil several criteria, including residing in Malaysia for two years. However, foreign spouses of Malaysian women can only apply for citizenship by naturalization, after residing in Malaysia for ten years.

These discriminatory laws have a real impact on the lives of many Malaysians and their families. Shasha, Dan, and Tina are among the many affected by these laws.

“I had been seconded by a multi-national company to work in the Philippines, when I gave birth to my son,“ explained Shasha, a communications specialist.

“I applied for my son’s citizenship at the Malaysian Embassy, but I was told that he cannot be registered as a Malaysian because I gave birth to him abroad. It’s quite painful that just by serving my company and trying to earn a living, I can’t pass on my citizenship to my son when I’ve always planned to live in Malaysia with my family.”

Her frustrations were shared by Dan, a Malaysian father of three.

"My eldest son was born prior to our marriage, that was delayed due to our lack of financial resources and some technicalities. He has two younger brothers who are Malaysians, and at school, he is not given health check-ups, vaccinations, or loaned textbooks, which are provided to Malaysian children. He feels excluded and ashamed that he is treated differently,” said Dan.

Meanwhile, for Tina, a Malaysian post-graduate student who is married to a non-citizen husband, the difficulty in securing residence for her husband has put their lives in limbo.

“We plan to have another child after I graduate; however, if the process for permanent residence and citizenship is not made any easier, then we will always have to live in uncertainty as to what will happen next,” said Tina.

“We will never be able to plan to buy a house or set up a permanent business or carry out our responsibilities and duties as law-abiding citizens, working in the best interest of our family.”

These discriminatory laws, which affect the lives of many Malaysians and their families, are inconsistent with the spirit of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees equality and prohibits gender discrimination. In a democracy based on rule-of-law, all citizens must be treated as equal before the law and, thus, be given equal right to confer nationality on their children and spouses, regardless of gender.

Hence, JAG urges the government to table amendments to nationality laws during this Parliamentary session, in tandem with other proposed amendments to the Federal Constitution.

Malaysia’s discriminatory nationality law also conflicts with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which Malaysia has ratified.

In 2018, the UN CEDAW Committee urged the Malaysian Government to “amend all provisions of the Federal Constitution that deny women equal rights with respect to the transmission of their nationality to their children and foreign spouses”.

If Malaysia does not reform its nationality laws, it would be left behind, as more and more countries move to eliminate gender discrimination in their nationality laws.

Currently, Malaysia is one of only three countries in the world that deny men equal right in conferring nationality on children born out of wedlock, and one of only 25 countries that deny women the right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men.

It’s time we move forward and ensure our nationality laws uphold gender equality.