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Malaysia’s two-tiered system of citizenship

Following a recent Cabinet decision which reversed patriarchal citizenship policies, Malaysia is one step closer to achieving inclusive citizenship.

Andrea González

The Global Pluralism Monitor: Malaysia highlights issues of citizenship and statelessness under the dimension of National Commitments and the indicator of Citizenship (see Monitor Methodology).

One of the issues examined in this indicator is the practice of the overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers not being entitled to be Malaysians automatically. The Constitution only permits fathers to pass down citizenship to their children born abroad. In other words, Malaysian women married to foreigners are unable to pass their citizenship to children born abroad. In recent years, Malaysia’s High Court has been subject to multiple lawsuits based on the discriminatory nature of the Constitution’s citizenship provisions. Nonetheless, even when these lawsuits have succeeded, only the mothers that were part of the suit were granted the ability to proceed with their children’s citizenship application.

This constitutional oversight has left Malaysian women, particularly those married to foreign spouses with few options in securing citizenship for their foreign-born children. In February of 2023, the Malaysian government announced plans to amend the Constitution to give automatic citizenship to the overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers, a welcome move for those working to address gender inequality in the country.  However, additional proposed amendments such as the revocation of citizenship to non-Malay wives if their marriages to Malays are dissolved within 2 years, continue to be discriminatory to women. Although these amendments mark an important first step towards achieving gender equality in Malaysia, a broader statelessness crisis must be addressed to fully achieve inclusive citizenship.

The government’s decision to amend the Constitution’s citizenship provisions in favour of Malaysian mothers has inspired calls to end the statelessness crisis for other groups. Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, SUHAKAM, has spearheaded this issue in March 2023. Specifically, SUHAKAM has approached the issue with a focus on vulnerable populations, such as Indigenous groups, undocumented persons, and the children impacted.

This is not the first time that SUHAKAM has sought to address this issue. SUHAKAM commissioned a report on statelessness in Malaysia in 2021, which was published in March 2023. Amongst the recommendations provided, SUHAKAM notes the importance of increasing transparency surrounding the path to citizenship and increasing trust in institutions. These two measures are key to ensuring a path towards pluralist approaches to inclusive citizenship. The Malaysian government, however, has yet to respond to these recommendations.

To read more about citizenship for diverse groups in Malaysia, visit the Malaysia country page.