Skip to main content

Malaysian mothers challenging discriminatory citizenship laws

A group of Malaysian mothers with children born outside the country come together with a human rights group to push for a change in the discriminatory citizenship law that has cost them and their children so much.

In Malaysia, the Constitution’s nationality provisions do not permit married Malaysian women to pass nationality to their foreign spouse or Malaysian mothers to automatically pass on nationality to children born abroad (only Malaysian fathers are permitted to do so for children born within marriage). Instead, Malaysian women have to apply for their children’s citizenship via an arbitrary, inconsistent, and tedious registration process.  These applications are almost never approved. Between 2013 and February 2022, only 117 of the 4870 applications (less than 2.5%) filed by Malaysian women were approved. 

These discriminatory nationality provisions are especially problematic in a country where people often travel abroad for work for extended periods, and it’s common for children to be born abroad. They have far-reaching implications on the lives of Malaysian women living abroad, and their children – who may be stateless if they are unable to access their father’s nationality; or may be burdened with exorbitant “foreigner’s fees” while accessing healthcare and unequal access to public education in Malaysia due to lack of citizenship. Mothers who live in Malaysia with their foreign-born children worry that their children may be deported.

Watch this moving short film by Family Frontiers for more on the heavy toll that discriminatory citizenship laws take on families. 

Family Frontiers, along with six affected Malaysian mothers with overseas-born children, approached the courts in order to challenge this discrimination. In September 2021, the Kuala Lumpur High Court passed a historic decision that granted Malaysian women equal citizenship rights and recognized their overseas-born children as citizens. By harmoniously interpreting the nationality provision in the Constitution with the provision on fundamental liberties that prohibits gender discrimination, it held that the term “father” in these provisions must now be read to include mothers, giving Malaysian women an equal right to pass on their nationality to children born outside the country. 

Disappointingly, the Malaysian government immediately appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal while delaying the implementation of the High Court decision in the meantime. As of April 2022, five out of the six women who are plaintiffs in the case have been granted citizenship documents for their children; one other plaintiff and other impacted mothers are yet to receive theirs. 

In response to a request from Equality Now, as a steering committee member of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women and girls issued a communication to the Malaysian government in September 2021. The communication urged the Malaysian government to amend all provisions of the Federal Constitution that deny women equal rights to transmit nationality and asked the government about its plans to enforce the High Court ruling. The Malaysian Government must respect and comply with the Kuala Lumpur High Court decision and expeditiously issue citizenship-related documents to all overseas-born children of Malaysian women. It also needs to formally amend the nationality provisions of the Constitution to solidify the High Court judgment. While awaiting the pronouncement of the decision of the Court of Appeal (due 5 August 2022), Family Frontiers and Malaysian women continue their fight for equal nationality rights.

Sign their petition at calling on the Malaysian government to uphold the High Court decision!

Learn more about discrimination in nationality law in our report, The State We’re In: Ending Sexism In Nationality Laws – 2022 Edition – Update For A Disrupted World.