Suhakam: Proposed tweaks to citizenship laws ‘most regressive’ in decades

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Government urged not to press ahead with proposed amendments of constitutional provisions regarding citizenship.

The National Human Rights Commission today again urged the government not to press ahead with the proposed amendments of constitutional provisions regarding citizenship, in a rare press conference held to warn policymakers of the immense harm the changes could do to children.

The urgent caution came after the commission submitted a 19-page memorandum to all House of Representative members and the Conference of Rulers yesterday, which detailed why the amendments should not be granted passage as it called on Putrajaya to hold more talks with experts first before bulldozing through the Bill.

Yusof Mat Isa

“This can be a serious setback for human rights. These are the most regressive proposed amendments (to the Constitution) in the last 50 to 60 years,” said Ragunath Kesavan, former Bar Council president and current Suhakam commissioner.

Suhakam previously said five proposed amendments to the provisions worried them, but much of their objection is centred on the planned changes to Section 19B Part III of the Second Schedule, which it said would remove a provision that gives foundlings near-automatic citizenship and shift that power to the home minister instead.

As part of five proposed amendments regarding citizenship, the Home Ministry (KDN) plans to remove the phrase “operation by law” to “by registration” under the section that Suhakam’s child commissioner Datuk Dr Farah Nini Dusuki said was inserted into the Federal Constitution in 1963 as a way to prevent child statelessness.

The removal would effectively turn the process of citizenship for abandoned babies into one that is application-based, with the National Registration Department given the power to approve or reject applications.

The move would also force applicants to meet additional eligibility and documentation requirements, which could be difficult for those abandoned as infants by their parents.

Dr Farah said while Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail has shown commitment to resolve the issue of statelessness by expediting some 10,000 approvals for applications from Malaysians without valid documents, there is no guarantee his successor would do the same.

“This is the problem, because when applying they may not be told the grounds of rejection or status of application. This can go on for years and years,” she said at the press conference.

“When a child has been abandoned, it is the duty of the state to prove otherwise. By making it a registration (process), you are changing the burden of proof the other way around. They said the person who found them is technically putting it on the child… if it gets rejected what is going to happen to them?” She added.

“They will still be in Malaysia. In the end we will see them in institutions like Henry Gurney (juvenile correctional centre). Without citizenship, they have no right for health, education — for health they will have to pay. We are perpetuating a cycle of poverty.”

“Generally, the concern we have is this: look this is what he has done and approved 10,000 applications this year and last year. We are happy with that but the concern we have is that there is a serious trust deficit with the NRD,” Ragunath said.

“The reasons are very clear — applications have gone in for five to seven years and there’s no response at all from NRD. So, when a child puts in an application through the guardian and has to wait for six, seven years before getting a response is not acceptable.”

The KDN’s argument for making citizenship registration-based for abandoned babies was that automatic registration could be abused or lead to a rise in baby-dumping, but Suhakam said this has not been supported with data.

Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri was reported saying in June 2023 that there were 256 recorded cases of babies abandoned between 2022 to 2024, the commission noted.

Dr Farah Nini said KDN data indicated there are only 142 cases. She was not clear if the KDN data she cited was from the same period revealed by Nancy.

“If there are other concerns, non-Malaysians abandoning babies, then show us the data,” she said.

“We have been requesting the data since the first KDN consulted us. We have not furnished the data to balance and what is the rationale to have this very drastic amendment, it is drastic when you are taking away the fundamental right to the most vulnerable section of society — defenceless children.” – MMO