At AGM, Malaysian Bar unanimously votes to condemn regressive citizenship amendments, to mull court challenge to end statelessness

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 — The Malaysian Bar today unanimously voted in favour of condemning the Malaysian government on its proposed “regressive” changes to citizenship laws in the Federal Constitution, also agreeing to consider starting or joining court cases to end statelessness in Malaysia.

At the Malaysian Bar’s 78th annual general meeting (AGM) today, all members who were present voted to adopt the resolution on citizenship laws and statelessness, with the resolution containing five main points.

The fifth and last point in the resolution was the Malaysian Bar resolving that "the Bar Council should consider and if thought fit institute or participate in all necessary court proceedings with a view to eliminating Malaysia's shameful legacy of stateless persons".

In other words, the legal professional body for lawyers in Peninsular Malaysia wanted the Bar Council to consider starting or joining court cases with the aim of ending statelessness, and to actually start or join such cases if it was found suitable to do so.

At a press conference held after the AGM, the Malaysian Bar's office bearers were asked if the Bar Council would be filing a court challenge and whether such a court case would be filed after the government's proposed regressive citizenship amendments are tabled in Parliament or voted on, and what is the next step following the unanimous approval of the motion on statelessness.

The Malaysian Bar's new vice president Anand Raj then explained the next course of action that would be taken.

"So the motion speaks for itself, and what we will do is we will always — after the AGM — will send it to the government.

"The court challenge, if required, only comes later. There is none that is contemplated at the moment, so we only have the general last paragraph that says 'the Bar Council should consider and if thought fit institute or participate in all necessary court proceedings with a view to eliminating Malaysia's shameful legacy of stateless persons'. So it's only as and when the cases come up.

"There are numerous cases in court, and we will see which are the ones we need to get involved in," he told reporters at the press conference held at the Menara Kembar Bank Rakyat in Kuala Lumpur.

Anand was then asked if this meant the Bar Council may not necessarily file a court challenge against the government's planned regressive citizenship amendments.

In response, Anand noted that this resolution on statelessness was from a "general motion" and that "there is no specific case that has been identified yet".

He added that this was different from another resolution where the Malaysian Bar today resolved to file a court challenge against the Pardons Board's decision in former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's case, as there is a "specific case" referred to in that resolution.

Asked if the Malaysian Bar will be presenting its views to the government such as through a memorandum or seek for engagement regarding the regressive citizenship amendments, Anand noted that the legal professional body has previously been giving its views regarding statelessness and citizenship issues in general.

Anand said lawyers have also been representing clients in statelessness court cases and the Malaysian Bar has either observed or attended as friends of the court (amicus curiae) in some of these cases.

"So we are constantly providing comments — our committees and members — constantly providing comments to the government. And there have been numerous cases taken up, not necessarily by us, but by members of the Bar on behalf of the clients. And we have also been involved in some of these cases, holding watching brief or on amicus curiae basis, and we will continue to do that, in addition to crystallising this motion which has been passed.

"And this motion refers to the regressive amendments. But prior to this, before the amendments were proposed, there were a whole slew of cases; there still are cases, so many of them pending in court, and there's been constant engagement," he said.

Anand confirmed that the Malaysian Bar had previously been providing views regarding the regressive citizenship amendments specifically, noting that the Malaysian Bar's outgoing and immediate past president Karen Cheah had issued a very lengthy press statement on this issue.

The Malaysian Bar's new president Mohamad Ezri Abdul Wahab also said: "We have also been requested by our members to set up a special committee on statelessness, so we will be putting up a committee specifically addressing statelessness."

The resolution which was approved unanimously includes the first main point of resolving for the Malaysian Bar to condemn the Malaysian government "in the strongest possible terms" on the proposed regressive amendments to Malaysian citizenship laws "which would constitute an alarming erosion of rights and pose an imminent threat to an already vulnerable segment of our society — stateless persons".

The second main point in the adopted resolution was for the Malaysian Bar to call on the Malaysian government to proceed with the proposed amendment to enable Malaysian mothers to confer automatic Malaysian citizenship to their overseas-born children, but at the same time to either abandon or defer the regressive amendments for further study and for meaningful participation of the stakeholders in the drafting process.

The third main point which the Malaysian Bar resolved to do was to demand the Malaysian government to adopt and implement the proposals in the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) 2023 report titled “Human Rights and Statelessness in Peninsular Malaysia”, with six of those recommendations listed in the resolution.

The six recommendations from the Suhakam report which the Malaysian Bar wants the government to do include: abolishing the requirement for legal citizenship status for access to education; prioritising Malaysian citizenship for stateless individuals who can prove they were born in Malaysia; and granting permanent resident status (Red Identification Cards) to those who had applied for citizenship while they wait for their citizenship approval.

Also in the six recommendations that the Malaysian Bar demanded the government to do was: providing temporary legal documents to enable stateless persons to be employed while waiting for their applications to be approved; and for increased transparency surrounding the path to citizenship — especially on the National Registration Department's practices.

The other Suhakam recommendation which the Malaysian Bar wants the government to do is: for the process to apply for Malaysian citizenship under the Federal Constitution's Article 15A and Article 19 (via the government's special powers to register those aged below 21 and via naturalisation respectively) to have shorter waiting period and clear time frame for the application process, and for rejected citizenship applicants under Article 15A and Article 19 to be told why their applications were rejected.

(Previously, based on news reports, civil society have said such citizenship applications could take years before the government notifies if the applications had succeeded or were rejected, and that the government's rejection letters typically do not give any reasons for the rejections.)

The fourth main point in the resolution was for the Malaysian Bar to demand the government to set up an independent Ombudsperson Office to ensure stateless children do not remain stateless, and to fast track citizenship applications to a maximum of nine months for processing, to increase transparency including via general timelines for the citizenship application process and to give better and more precise information on the path to citizenship and for overall improvement of the citizenship application process; as well as to appoint a "chief commissioner for stateless persons within Suhakam" to carry out the functions of the Ombudsperson Office.

The motion was proposed by Bar Council member Abhilaash Subramaniam, and seconded by Bar Council member Collin Arvind Andrew and lawyer Abang Mohd Iwawan Abg Narawi @ Abg Nawawi.