Left in Limbo: The Struggle for Citizenship for the “Overseas-Born” Is Not Over

By Emilia Ong

July 2024 FEATURE
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The author as a baby and her mother.

AND NOW HERE we are,” Amelia Tai is saying. She pauses, sighing a little. “He’s turning three in June, but there’s nothing I can do. I’m powerless.”

She is talking about the situation facing her second, Levi: being born in the UK, he is not automatically entitled to Malaysian citizenship. This is the case both in spite of Amelia’s efforts and of the fact that Amelia herself is Malaysian. Like thousands of Malaysian women who have given birth abroad, her gender renders her unable to confer citizenship on her children born outside of the country.

Or at least it did.

According to amendments announced in March this year, children born overseas to Malaysian mothers and foreign fathers will henceforth be accorded the same rights to citizenship as those born to Malaysian men—with a caveat. A clause in the legislation specifies that the change will not be applied retroactively.

Nearly 40 years have elapsed between my own birth and that of Levi. But the situation Amelia’s family is presently facing is depressingly similar to my own. Like Amelia, my mother left Malaysia in her 20s. Like Amelia, when my mother left, she did so with neither the intention nor the expectation that she could be doing so for good. Like Amelia, she met her future husband while away, and had a child. And, like Amelia, she stuck around in her adopted country to bring me up.

Now, my mother is a pensioner living alone in Tanjung Tokong. Long divorced from my father, she returned to the land of her birth in 2011. I want to be with her. As her only child, I should be with her. But I am only ever able to enter the country on a tourist visa. When, nearing the end of a visit, I tell people that I will be leaving my mother again, they widen their eyes and say, “How can?” But it is what the government demands of me. My 90 days run out, and I am sent “home” again.

As Amelia says: it is like being in exile.

Some point out that Malaysian women could choose to not give birth in a foreign country. That is not always so—take Amelia, for example. Levi was born during the Covid-19 pandemic, when countries’ borders were closed.

Amelia fears for the future. “What if something happens to me? We might be separated.”

Amelia Tai and family.

Much is written about the real-world consequences of denying citizenship to children of Malaysian mothers, but the psychological impact upon those children is not so well documented. I know from my own experience that growing up without a sense of belonging—as nebulous as that may sound—can make it difficult to thrive.

Added to this is a strange sense of guilt—one I have only recently been able to name—that I trapped my mother. And its consequences—the feeling that I was a burden—have had devastating impacts on my emotional and mental health, and at times, our relationship.

Given that I possess British citizenship and Amelia’s son’s place of birth gives him the right to it, many will fail to see the problem. Alicia Dixon, of the advocacy group Family Frontiers, confirms that the predicament faced by this group of Malaysian mothers is frequently regarded as “a privileged person’s problem” by their own countrymen. As a result, she adds, the group sees “a lot of rhetoric around it being the fault of the mother for leaving in the first place”.

Family Frontiers has long been at the forefront of the campaign for change, and in many ways, the group can be credited with bringing the issue of citizenship rights into popular consciousness.

“Citizenship is the right that provides access to all other rights,” Alicia explains. “Affected children have limited access to public education, to affordable healthcare and to the legal protections that citizens are entitled to. Even if they secure enrolment in a government school, they face delayed admission. They also miss out on benefits like the free textbook scheme, vaccinations and dental check-ups that Malaysian children typically receive.

“There are also women trapped in abusive relationships overseas. So many mothers in our network are subject to domestic abuse but they can’t escape and come home because they’re unable to bring their children with them. That’s why it’s vital we continue to push for retroactivity.”

Avenues to citizenship have never been entirely closed, though. Under Article 15(2), Malaysian mothers have been able to apply for their child’s citizenship, so long as the child is still under 21. However, as Alicia explains, “It’s a long, arbitrary process with no guarantee of approval. Decisions can take years, and they are very discretionary. Everything depends on the attitude of the Home Minister. Right now, we happen to have one who is willing to expedite the process, and that’s great. But there’s no regularity, and this causes a lot of strain for people.”

Though she does not have the exact numbers, she notes that according to Hansard, 41,314 citizenship applications were received between 2018 and 2023. 31,808 of these are still “in process”; out of these, 3,443 were made under Article 15(2). The latter figure is almost certainly not representative of the number of people affected: “There are many who have been rejected and haven’t reapplied, or who haven’t put in an application at all. And then, there are those who have been rejected so many times they have been aged out.”

Article 15(2) is inapplicable to adult children like myself. Should a child over 21 seek naturalisation, their only recourse is to do so via Article 19. “It is much more difficult,” Alicia says, “as it requires Permanent Residence status first.”

Alicia stresses that the law has woeful consequences not only for individuals, but for the country as a whole.

“It has a huge economic impact,” she says. “There are over one million diaspora women overseas. With all the talk in Malaysia about brain drain at the moment, it just doesn’t make sense. We’re losing talented, professional people just because of a truly archaic law.”

The author as a child and her mother.

On the international stage, it is also a little embarrassing. “Malaysia has international obligations to uphold. In 1995, we acceded to two UN Conventions regarding the rights of women (CEDAW) and the rights of children (CRC), but we’re in direct violation of these commitments. We’re also in violation of Article 8(2) of our very own Federal Constitution, which does not allow discrimination on the basis of gender.

“Ultimately,” Alicia concludes, “it just doesn’t look good. It makes Malaysia look like a country that is not family-friendly. We can’t claim to live in an equal society until all overseas-born children, regardless of the year of their birth, obtain equal rights to citizenship.”

Whatever the case may be, it is unfathomable how it can be regarded as a good thing to separate families. How can it be deemed better for the country to lose the contributions of competent, professional women—as well as the future potential of their children? And how, finally, can it be considered reasonable to leave aging mothers alone, when they have offspring ready, willing and desperate to support them?

Because really, I do not want to take from Malaysia. Like all the other children, I just want to give. How can that be a bad thing?

To find out more about the work of Family Frontiers, follow them on X @FamilyFrontiers. You can donate to their campaign for equal citizenship rights here: bit.ly/DonateToFF

Emilia Ong

is a writer, journalist and former English teacher. She is currently seeking to relocate to Penang permanently.