Karen Yeaw is exhausted and just plain fed up. For the past six years, the Malaysian mother has tried unsuccessfully to get her daughter Valene, who was born in China in 2012, registered as a Malaysian citizen. But her applications have all been turned down.

She was not told why her child cannot get Malaysian citizenship; she was just advised to “try again”.

Yeaw is a Malaysian married to a foreign national. Under our law, a Malaysian mother cannot automatically pass on her citizenship to her children born outside Malaysia.

A Malaysian man, however, can – it takes just about three days to sort out the formalities.

The mother, on the other hand, will have to submit an application to the Malaysian embassy where she is based and then, wait.

In 2010, then home minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein announced that Malaysian mothers have the same rights as Malaysian fathers to pass on their citizenship to their children born overseas. But the announcement was not followed by a formal ruling, and Malaysian women still face hurdles in giving their children born abroad Malaysian citizenship.

“Sometimes there is a gap between the minister’s announcement and its actual implementation. Everything may work smoothly in Putrajaya because that’s where the minister is. But thousands of kilometres away in China or elsewhere, who knows if the civil servants got the brief,” observes Sharmila Sekaran, Chairperson of Voices of Children, an NGO championing children’s rights.

Valene has full rights as a Chinese citizen but her home now is in Malaysian and her mother would like her to have the rights and priviledges of a Malaysian citizen.

Meanwhile, mothers like Yeaw continue to live in uncertainty.

“It is really unfair. I actually did my research before deciding to have my baby in China, where I was living at the time. I was aware that many Malaysian women fly back to Malaysia to deliver because of this citizenship issue. But, when I read about the 2010 announcement, I honestly believed I didn’t need to worry anymore.

“But when I went to apply for my daughter’s citizenship, the officers did not know anything about the ruling. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I made a mistake,” she said.

The 36-year-old recently submitted her third application for her child’s citizenship. To hedge her bets, she also applied for PR status for the girl but so far, there has been no news. Yeaw is adamant about getting Malaysian citizenship for her daughter.

“Anything can happen in a marriage … a marriage may or may not last. And should something happen to me or my husband, I’d want my daugher to be with our family here in Malaysia.

“It could take months and I don’t know what else to do. Valene starts school next year. If she’s not a citizen, I won’t be able to send her to a national school. She will have to stay here on a student pass which we have to renew every six months. I think that’s really unfair. After all, I am Malaysian and Malaysian mothers should have the same rights as Malaysian fathers,” says Yeaw.

Hoping for change

Yeow’s case is not isolated. At the Malaysian Natio­nal Consultation on Achieving Equal Nationality Rights for Women and Men last week, other Malaysians spoke up about their hapless situations.

Bina: Until the laws change, Malaysian women and unmarried Malaysian men are unequal citizens.

These women and men implored delegates of the consultation – activists, lawyers, civil society groups and individuals from all over the country and region – to help them fight for the right for their families to gain citizenship.

“I hope this (consultation) has a positive outcome. This issue has been in the news many times before but so far, no change,” says Aminah*, a Malaysian doctor whose foreign spouse (married for seven years) is here on a long term spousal visa which restricts his employment opportunities.

For many, a source of information and support has been the Foreign Spouse Support Group (FSSG), an online support network co-founded by Bina Ramanand.

An Indian national, Bina married her Malaysian husband some 27 years ago. It took her 18 years to obtain her PR; she is still waiting for her citizenship. Having dealt with the system for many years, Bina now supports others who are going through citizenship issues through the FSSG.

“When I got married and came to Malaysia, I was like any other bride hoping for a wonderful time … a happily ever after. But for me and many foreign spouses, it is when our nightmare starts … dealing with visas, immigration, problems admitting our children to hospitals.

“Foreign spouses are almost completely bound to their husbands or wives. Mind you, widows and divorcees don’t have the right to remain in the country even if they have lived here for 20 years,” relates Bina.

Though it started as a group for foreign spouses, FGGS soon began supporting Malaysians with citizenship issues as well, which led Bina to organise the Malaysian Consultation.

“This consultation is really a milestone. From one tiny support group, we are now part of the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality and together with all the other groups pushing for reform … we can make some noise,” says Bina.

Laws need to change

Civil society and rights activists have been lobbying for a gender equal nationality law for over a decade to little avail.

Malaysia is still one of 25 countries in the world that denies women the right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis as men. Malaysia is also one of 50 countries in the world that denies women the equal right to confer nationality on their spouses and one of only three countries that denies men the right to confer nationality on their children born out of wedlock.

Some members of the newly formed Citizenship Taskforce with Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar at Parliament last week. The group briefed MPs about their recommendations for gender equal nationality laws.

The Malaysian Natio­nal Consultation on Achieving Equal Nationality Rights, organised by the Foreign Spouse Support Group, was an attempt for various groups fighting for reform, to work together for, hopefully, greater success.

“All this while, we’ve been working in silos, collecting evidence on our own and talking to MPs or ministers. But not anymore. We will be forming a coalition … a citizenship taskforce and we will not just present our recommendations to the government, we will keep lobbying both sides of the bench, government and opposition, to fight for a gender unbias law,” says Ivy Josiah, secretary-general of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham).

The group came up with 13 recommendations which they handed to the government last week.

Topping the list of recommendations was the call to ammend the constitution, particularly Articles 14 and 15, to eliminate inconsistencies that allow for gender discrimination.

Ramachelvam: The citizenship process should be transparent, not at the total discretion of the minister.

“There are gaps in the constitution that are gender discriminatory … in some situations men have automatic rights and women don’t while in other situations women have certain rights that men don’t.

“We have to address these gaps so that both men and women have the same rights.

“There also needs to be transparency in the application process. Currently, the (home) minister cannot be given total discretionary powers to decide on citizenship issues and he does not have to explain his decisions.

“There has to be a clear process, a timeline and a mechanism for applicants to appeal the decision. These cases cannot simply drag on for an inordinate period of time,” said the Bar Council’s Institutional and Law Reform committee chairman Datuk Seri M. Ramachelvam.

Law reform will take time but the task force have recommendations that the government can consider in the interim to eliminate gender discriminatory practices: children with one Malaysian parent must be granted permanent resident status pending their citizenship application – this way, they can at least have equal opportunities and protection.

Also, all foreign spouses must be entitled to apply for citizenship after two years of residence in Malaysia – this should not just apply for female foreign spouses.

“The reality is, if there is political will, we can remove discriminatory practices right now. We hope that the Pakatan Harapan government will honour their campaign manifesto to “review all laws relating to gender equality to ensure that every woman enjoys legal equality”.

Changes may not take place within 100 days, concedes Josiah, but the newly formed taskforce will not let the issue die.

“We will brief parliamentarians and keep talking to them. I am optimistic … I see a difference in the way MPs are responding to civil society and I think that’s because the voices of people are strong now. So we all just have to keep pressing for reform,” says Josiah.