Legal experts rubbish 'ignorant' social media posts about 'conditions for Malaysian citizenship'

·4 min read

Multiple Malaysian-language posts circulating on Facebook claim a person must either be Muslim, Malay or originally from the Southeast Asia region to be eligible for Malaysian citizenship. However, the claim is false; neither race nor religion are conditions for citizenship in Malaysia under the Constitution, while a legal expert called the claim "ignorant and prejudiced".

The claim was shared as an image on Facebook here on June 9, 2022.

Its Malaysian-language caption translates as: "So that foreigners know these are the conditions to become citizens of Malaysia. Why don’t Malaysian Chinese and Indians want to accept it?"

The disjointed Malaysian-language text in the image claims "conditions to become a Malaysian citizen" include being of the Malay ethnicity or originating from Southeast Asia or the Malay Archipelago, referring to a cluster of more than 17,000 islands, which includes parts of Malaysia, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines.

It continues to claim that spouses must be Muslim if they are seeking citizenship.

The claim also states that Chinese and Indian people who do not come from the Southeast Asia region cannot become citizens and are only eligible for permanent residency, as well as cannot participate in politics unless they are Muslim or married to a Malaysian Muslim citizen of the Malay ethnicity.

Screenshot of the misleading Facebook post taken on July 18, 2022

The claim circulated as a Malaysian court was set to decide on an appeal by the government against a High Court ruling in September 2021 that found a rule preventing women married to foreign spouses from passing on citizenship to their children was unconstitutional.

The government has challenged that court ruling, and the Court of Appeal is set to hand down a ruling on August 5, 2022, local media reported.

The claim was also shared on Facebook here, here and here.

However, the claim is false; the Constitution of Malaysia does not include race or religion as a condition for gaining citizenship.

'Ignorant, populist views'

"The Facebook post is, understandably, a mixture of ignorance, populist views, and racist and religious prejudices," said Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi, an emeritus professor at the University of Malaya's Faculty of Law.

"Under the Federal Constitution, race and religion are nowhere prescribed as requirements for citizenship. Millions of non-Malays and non-Muslims are citizens of the country," he told AFP on July 2, 2022.

The constitutional expert dismissed the claim that a person must be of the Malay race from Southeast Asia or the Malay Archipelago.

Malaysia has long grouped its indigenous tribes under the same category as people of Malay ethnicity called "bumiputera" -- a phrase not used in the constitution -- but Shad Saleem said those in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak might question this idea of a "Malay lineage".

The claim that foreigners who are Muslims would be eligible for citizenship was "very unclear and mostly wrong", Shad Saleem said, adding that the religion did not guarantee citizensip.

Becoming a Malaysian citizen

Jasmine Wong, a senior associate at the law firm MahWengKwai & Associates, explained the four avenues to becoming a Malaysian citizen.

The first is citizenship by operation of law -- also called citizenship by birth and descent.

These include: people born in Malaysia to at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth; those born outside of the country to a father who is a citizen and whose birth is registered within one year; a person born in Singapore to at least one parent who is a citizen; and a person born in Malaysia but who is not born a citizen of any other country.

"There are various issues with the legal interpretations of the above and citizenship is not a straightforward matter," she told AFP.

The second method is by registration: a foreign wife who is married to a Malaysian husband, stayed in Malaysia for at least two years and is of good character; any person under the age of 21 with at least one parent who is a citizen; or any children below the age of 21 if there are "special circumstances".

However, Wong noted that the "special circumstances" are not defined anywhere.

Shad Saleem also said this method excludes foreign men who marry Malaysian women.

A person can also become a citizen by naturalisation, where the government may grant citizenship if the person has stayed in Malaysia for a minimum of 10 years and intends to live permanently in the country, is of good character and has an adequate grasp of the Malaysian language.

The last method is citizenship by "incorporation of territory" under which any residents in land acquired by Malaysia would be granted citizenship, which Wong said was no longer relevant today.

However, she said the complicated nature of citizenship laws meant that local courts and the National Registration Department (JPN) have taken different approaches and interpretations when deciding whether to grant citizenship to a person.

Political participation

Despite the claim that people of Indian and Chinese descent were barred from politics, Malaysia has political parties based on those ethnicities, such as the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association, which are part of the ruling coalition.

According to Shad Saleem, the claim is "not based on law but is mischievous and racist".

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