Malaysian mothers win citizenship rights for their children

In a landmark ruling, Malaysian mothers are now allowed to pass their citizenship to their children born overseas – a privilege previously only granted to fathers. The change helps ease access to residency, education, and health care for families.

Vincent Thian/AP
Two women wear Malaysian national flag costumes near the National Monument in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as seen on Aug. 31, 2021 – Malaysia's independence day. Until recently, Malaysian women were not allowed to pass their citizenship to their children born overseas.

A group of Malaysian mothers won a legal battle last week for the right to pass their nationality to children born overseas – a landmark ruling that campaigners said could spur efforts to reform discriminatory citizenship laws in other countries.

Malaysia allows men to confer citizenship to children born abroad, but women have been denied the same right as the constitution only refers to the “father” passing on his nationality.

In a lawsuit filed at the High Court, six mothers and campaign group Family Frontiers argued that the provision violated Article 8 of the constitution which bans gender discrimination.

The High Court ruled on Thursday that the word “father” must be read to include mothers, and said their overseas-born children were entitled to Malaysian citizenship.

“I’m so thrilled. It’s a big win,” one of the mothers – former squash champion Choong Wai Li – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. Ms. Choong said that she had dressed her 7-year-old son in a T-shirt with the Malaysian flag to celebrate.

Like the other mothers in the case, Ms. Choong is married to a foreign national and gave birth abroad. The women said the citizenship rules split up families, risked trapping women in abusive relationships, and could leave children stateless.

The government – which has previously described the case as “frivolous” – did not respond to a request for comment, but is expected to appeal the court ruling, according to campaigners.

It is unknown how many women in Malaysia have been affected by the issue, but Family Frontiers said the number of binational families was rising as more people spent time working abroad.

Twenty-four countries do not give mothers and fathers equal rights to pass their nationality to their children, and activists said the legal victory could drive change.

“This decision only increases the momentum for equal nationality laws around the world,” said Catherine Harrington of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights.

“We believe other governments will be encouraged by this decision to enact these needed reforms and urge them to do so without delay.”

Rights denied

Family Frontiers said mothers returning to Malaysia after giving birth abroad faced problems accessing residency, education, health care, and social services for their children.

Lawyers said the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the issue, with some women unable to return home due to entry restrictions on foreign nationals – including their children.

Family Frontiers said the ruling was a “momentous decision” and “a huge relief” for affected mothers.

“This judgment recognizes Malaysian women’s equality, and marks one step forward to a more egalitarian and just Malaysia,” said the group’s president Suri Kempe.

Another mother in the case – bank executive Myra Silwizya – said she had battled for years to get citizenship for her 8-year-old daughter, who was born in Zambia.

“I am so happy and I cannot wait to tell her that she is also Malaysian, just like her brother,” she said.

Non-Malaysian children do not have the same rights to health care and education as Malaysian children, meaning their parents face additional costs for schooling, health insurance, and visas.

This often deters women from returning home after giving birth to raise their families, as does the fear that their children will have to leave the country once they are adults.

Six nations, including Barbados, Iraq, and Liberia, have similar rules to those in Malaysia, while another 18 – among them Nepal, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – do not let mothers confer citizenship to children even if they were born in the country.

The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights said there was growing momentum to address the issue with more than 20 countries having amended discriminatory citizenship laws since 2003, but added that reforms were often partial.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Malaysian mothers win citizenship rights for their children
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today