In February 2020, newspaper headlines were abuzz with news about a footballer from Kosovo who was granted with Malaysian citizenship to qualify him to play for the Malaysian National Team. The ease in how he was given citizenship has put a spotlight on the gaps in the system on how one could obtain citizenship in our country.

Having citizenship means that one has the right to participate in public life and political spheres. This include the broad range of activities through which people can develop and express their opinions on the world and how it is governed and their ability to take part in and shape the decision that affect their lives. 

Why is having a citizenship important?

Members of the society are made up of citizens and this is linked directly to fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and participation in public and political life. Without citizenship, foreign spouses have limited access to spaces such as political processes and access to economic opportunity and public services like education and healthcare.

  1. The duration of Long Term Social Visa Pass for foreign spouses varies from one month to three months and up to five years. The duration of the visa received is unpredictable and ostensibly at the discretion of the attending Immigration Department officer. 

The quotes from a foreign spouse below have shown the difficulties and inconsistency that she has experienced in the visa application processes. 

 “You have to wait indefinitely to get PR, it’s up to them. I applied in 2012, and now it’s 2015, and still waiting for my PR status. When we asked at immigration, they say it’s still under process. “They grant you citizenship within 5 years, like in the UK, and PR within one year. There’s a time frame but here there’s no time frame at all. “We foreign spouses are considered as foreigners, and we also get charged as such. Like in entertainment parks we pay the tourist price, we cannot invest in Amanah Saham, or apply for the Tabung Haji as we are foreign spouses, we cannot buy property unless its RM1 million and RM2 million. “We are now married to a Malaysian and have Malaysian kids, we should have equal rights as citizens and locals. “We are not tourists to stay here and then go back. Giving us recognition can give Malaysia a better workforce”

Most of the questions from foreign spouses posted is what are the standards in determining the duration of stay? Without a consistent stay period, it causes repeated trips for foreign spouses. This brings financial burden for the family, causing them to face difficulties in securing permanent jobs due to the irregular time of their duration of stay. Not to mention that foreign spouses have to pay double charges for public healthcare services and also have limited rights of property ownership where they need to fork out a minimum price of RM500,000 to buy a piece of property. Foreign spouses are also unable to vote, own property, participate in organisations, associations or unions, and work except in jobs that does not require a work permit. 

  1. The process of renewing the Long Term Social Visit Pass (LTSVP) and applying Permanent Residency (PR) for foreign wives require Malaysian spouses to be physically present during the application. Dependence on Malaysian spouses to be present at every renewal has put foreign wives in a vulnerable and dependent position. This has potential compounding effects of violence, including physical, emotional and financial repercussions. 

The quote from a foreign spouse shown below highlights the despair she feels on having no control over her visa application and getting a visa cancellation without prior notice by her partner during the divorce process that eventually has affected her work and livelihood. 

I am a foreign spouse, married to my Malaysian husband for over 15 years; I am now in the process of getting a divorce. However, without my knowledge my husband went to Immigration and cancelled my spousal visa. I have no children from this marriage. Is this even legal?  I had applied for a work permit, since I need to work while matters are pending in court.  However, my company received a letter from ESD, that the applicant (me) has issues with immigration. Looks like I’m in for big trouble.  Is there any hope for me?

This create major inconvenience in the event that Malaysian spouses are unable to be present during the application owing to work commitments, illness or disability. There are also cases where the husband has been known to cancel their spouse’s PR (Permanent Resident) permit or send the foreign wife and child back to their home country on a one-way ticket. There is no consideration on the Malaysian children involved during the withdrawal of the PR application in the event of divorce or demise of a Malaysian spouse.

On the other hand, local women married to foreign spouses are unable to pass on citizenship to their children. The children are at risk of being stateless and women become more vulnerable to gender-based violence that eventually affect their political participation. Local women are dependant on their foreign husbands for their children’s citizenship. 

Quotes below show that a local woman has to be dependent on her foreign spouse in order for her child to acquire a passport. The visa application for her child was rejected without any reason given by the immigration department. 

I am Malaysian with foreign husband. My daughter was born overseas. There was no Malaysian embassy in Zambia. I could only apply when we came back here. We came back when she was 5 months old and applied at JPN in April 2014, submitted documents and all. Recently, 2-3 months back received a letter from KDN rejected my daughter application without stating a reason. I called KDN and they said they couldn’t expose the reason why and told me to re-apply again and wait for another 2 years. My daughter is now using a Zambian passport, since the father is a Zambian and was born in Zambia. And her visa is under ‘Anak warganegara’

If local women were abused by their foreign spouses, they are less likely to leave the violent situation as staying at a foreign country with their spouses will feel like a more secured option for their children. This environment hinders an enabling space that allows women to exercise their rights and participate fully in political and public life. 

Mary’s story shows how discriminatory policies and practices has helped to reinforced the constant violence that she has to endure due to her dependency to her husband. 

Mary has been living in Malaysia with her Malaysian husband for the past 20 years.  Although she still lives with her husband and daughter, her husband often stays with another woman and Mary sees him very infrequently.  Mary’s husband has not given permission for Mary to work so she does not have an employment visa and has no choice but to work in the informal sector as a cleaner. Mary wishes to apply for Permanent Residence (PR) so that she can become independent and seek employment.  However, in order to apply for PR she requires her husband’s presence at the Immigration Department office. Mary lives in fear of her husband and he is unwilling to assist her in applying for PR. Owing to the strict Immigration Department regulations, Mary is in a difficult situation and remains dependent on her husband.

Malaysia as a member state that has ratified Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has the obligation to ensure respect, protect and fulfil women’s rights to uphold gender equality.

The Malaysian state government is obliged and should be held accountable in ensuring that there are non-discrimination practices regardless of gender revolving around nationalities that can obstruct women’s participation in public and political life. The rights of women in Malaysia have to be respected and they should also have equal opportunities in accessing and participating fully in decision-making processes that can shape their own individual and collective destinies. 

Article 3   States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular in the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women , for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.

Article 9 States Parties shall grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality. They shall ensure in particular that neither marriage to an alien nor change of nationality by the husband during marriage shall automatically change the nationality of the wife, render her stateless or force upon her the nationality of the husband State Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children. 

We also need to think about the status of stateless children in Malaysia, thousands of them have struggled for long periods to gain citizenships. Malaysia as the signatory of the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) also has an obligation to ensure children has the right to acquire citizenship and there are no discriminatory laws and practices towards the acquisition of children’s citizenships. 

Article 7
1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and. as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
2. States Parties shall ensure the implementation of these rights in accordance with their national law and their obligations under the relevant international instruments in this field, in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.

Article 8
1.States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.

Malaysia is one of the 25 countries in the entire world that is lacking when it comes to gender equality in citizenship laws where women are denied the opportunity to confer their nationality to their child on an equal basis as men.

The current processes of citizenship applications are discriminating against women and children. This is clearly a violation of women and children rights according to CEDAW and CRC. Why is the government punishing women on their rights to choose a partner, and where to give birth to their children, but not doing the same to the men? Where are the rights of children when it comes to their nationality?

Thousands of foreign spouses and stateless children are waiting for a long time to obtain a citizenship. Referring back to the Kosovo-born footballer case, what are the standards and processes to determine the speed or duration of one’s getting visa or citizenship? 

Therefore, we urged the government of Malaysia to: 

  1. Simplify the spouse visa – (Long Term Social Visit Pass – LTSVP) application process eliminating costly and un-necessary trips to their home country as well as shorter term visas that discriminate against Gender, Nationality and couples without children. The Immigration Department’s website should be updated regularly, exhibit transparency, and clearly state all rules, regulations, policies, time frames, and payments pertaining to visas of spouses of Malaysian Citizens, so that the rules are not subject to the widely differing interpretation of officers. 
  2. Allow foreign spouses to work upon marriage and withdraw the statement on the prohibition from employment on the spouse visa,  to enable spouses to have a sustained livelihood bearing in mind that the direct beneficiaries are Malaysian families and allowing them to contribute their skills and tax to the growth and development of the Malaysian economy. 
  3. Enable Malaysian women to transmit citizenship to their children born overseas and to their foreign spouses on a similar basis as Malaysian men and uphold the rights of all Malaysian citizens to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis, regardless of gender, marital status and the child’s place of birth, thereby granting citizenship to children when:   
    *either parent is Malaysian 
    *notwithstanding the marital status of the parent      
    *regardless of whether they are born in Malaysia or outside Malaysia.

We believe that a democratic governance is premised on the notion of equal participation by all citizens in any country. Foreign spouses have been contributing to the Malaysian economy and development while their children are the future of the country.

Would we ever reach a point where the Malaysian government would recognise equal citizenship regardless of gender? If we continue to fight and strive for it, hopefully, one day we will.

Primary source of information above is provided by Foreign Spouses Support Group.
Source: “Memorandum: Challenges faced by Foreign Spouses of Malaysia Citizens”

Photo by Thilipen Rave Kumar from Pexels

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.


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