Court declares three generations in stateless Perak family as Malaysians; says can legally marry

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, May 21 — A Perak family whose members have been stateless for generations — despite being born in Malaysia and having Malaysian ancestors – has won in court the right to be officially called Malaysians.

This family had struggled for years due to their status as stateless persons, which means they were not citizens of any country in the world.

Yesterday, the High Court in Taiping ruled in favour of this Perak family (Kamaladevi Kanniappan, her two children, her three grandchildren), and declared that these three generations of stateless persons are entitled to Malaysian citizenship.

The High Court also declared that Kamaladevi and her daughter have the right to register their marriage under Malaysian laws. Previously, the two of them had been unable to register their marriages with their Malaysian husbands, which resulted in statelessness being passed on to their children.

Kamaladevi told Malay Mail via her lawyer Shugan Raman that she is “extremely happy” with the High Court's decision, especially after everything she has gone through.

“She has been working on this process for the last 16 years and has met countless people who promised to help her get citizenship for her and her family, but to no avail.

“She said there's new hope in their lives now and she's so glad that her son can find a proper job, her daughter can finally be legally married, and more importantly, her grandchildren can have proper access to education, unlike her children,” Shugan told Malay Mail.

Kamaladevi also thanked the lawyers who represented her family as well as Parti Sosialis Malaysia chairman Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj for helping them through this process and said she would be “eternally grateful” to them.

Malay Mail understands that Dr Jeyakumar had brought this case to the lawyers' attention.

How did this Perak family become stuck in a cycle of statelessness?

Kamaladevi's story begins with her Malaysian grandparents, who were born here before the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The Malaysian couple (the first generation of this Perak family) had a customary marriage and gave birth to a son, Vathumalai and a daughter, Letchimee (the second generation).

There were issues regarding Letchimee's official documents which started with her stepfather pawning off her birth certificate when she was young and the subsequent retrieval of the birth certificate by Letchimee's brother.

Letchimee later married a Malaysian man — also a customary marriage — and gave birth to three children including Kamaladevi (the third generation) before she obtained her Malaysian identity card.

She was unable to register her marriage at the National Registration Department (NRD) as she did not have an identity card then.

Kamaladevi has asserted that her Malaysia-born mother Letchimee is a Malaysian and believes that the latter should have a Malaysian identity card but did not collect it from the NRD.

Letchimee was said to have what her family described as a temporary identity card, namely an NRD-issued document titled “Surat Pengenalan Sementara dan Kenyataan Penerimaan Permohonan Satu Kad Pengenalan” (Letter of temporary identification and statement of receipt of application for an identity card) and which had stated “belum dikeluarkan” (not yet issued) for the information on the colour of the identity card.

With Letchimee not having official documents regarding her status as a Malaysian at the time of her marriage and when her children were born, this resulted in her children including Kamaladevi also being stateless.

Kamaladevi also married a Malaysian man but could not register her marriage with the NRD as she did not have a Malaysian identity card, resulting in her four children born in Malaysia (the fourth generation) and her three grandchildren (the fifth generation) also becoming stateless.

In Malaysia, the authorities view children who are born from marriages that are not registered as being illegitimate.

In multiple court cases, the Malaysian government has interpreted Malaysian citizenship laws under the Federal Constitution by saying that the citizenship status of illegitimate children should follow their mother's citizenship status. The Malaysian government's interpretation of local laws is that illegitimate children cannot take on their father's citizenship status.

For such Malaysia-born children, even though their biological fathers are Malaysians, they end up becoming stateless — such as when their biological mother is a stateless person or of unknown or undetermined nationality.

In other words, being denied the right to legally marry can result in statelessness being passed down through different generations, as seen in Kamaladevi's family.

Being stateless has resulted in hardship for Kamaladevi's family, including being deprived of the social protections that Malaysians enjoy, having to pay more expensive medical costs, not being able to have proper education and having limited job prospects.

The court was previously told that Kamaladevi did not get a proper education and had to start working at 12 in a rubber estate.

Tragedy also struck Kamaladevi's family, with the family believing that two of her older sons — identified as R and E — had taken their own lives as the weight of enduring life without citizenship had become unbearable.

What are the six court orders in Kamaladevi's favour?

After a previous unsuccessful attempt for a late registration of her birth with the NRD, Kamaladevi in 2021 reapplied, after getting DNA test results which verified that she is biologically related to her Malaysian uncle Vathumalai.

On April 26, 2022, Kamaladevi was issued with a late birth certificate which recorded her citizenship status as “maklumat tidak diperolehi” (information not obtained), which meant she was not recognised as a Malaysian.

On May 24, 2023, the six stateless family members spanning three generations — Kamaladevi, her daughter T, her son M, her daughter T's three children — filed a lawsuit against the government at the High Court in Taiping to seek official recognition as Malaysians.

In the lawsuit, they named five respondents to the lawsuit, namely the Registrar of Births and Deaths, the Registrar-General of Births and Deaths, the director-general of National Registration, the home minister, and the government of Malaysia.

The High Court heard this case on April 3.

Yesterday, the High Court in Taiping granted six court orders in favour of Kamaladevi and her family, including a declaration that all six of them are citizens of Malaysia by operation of law under the Federal Constitution's Article 14(1)(b) and Section 1(a) of Part II of the Second Schedule in the Federal Constitution.

Being citizens by operation of law means automatically having the right under the law to be a citizen. To be entitled to Malaysian citizenship under Article 14(1)(b), Section 1(a) requires a person to be born in Malaysia and to have at least one Malaysian parent or at least one permanent resident parent at the time of this person's birth.

Also as part of the six court orders, the High Court issued two declarations which declared that Kamaladevi and her family have the right to be issued birth certificates with the status “Warganegara” (citizen) and identity cards with the same “Warganegara” status.

The High Court also declared that Kamaladevi and her family had the right for their name to be registered in the register in accordance with the National Registration Act 1959's Section 4, and Regulations 4, 11 and 14 of the National Registration Regulations 1990.

The remaining court orders by the High Court are a declaration that both Kamaladevi and her daughter T have the right to register their marriages with the NRD under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, and directed for the family's fundamental rights under Part II of the Federal Constitution to be enforced or for full justice to be delivered in the subject matter of the case.

In Malaysia, the authorities view children who are born from marriages that are not registered as being illegitimate. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
In Malaysia, the authorities view children who are born from marriages that are not registered as being illegitimate. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

In Malaysia, the authorities view children who are born from marriages that are not registered as being illegitimate. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Why the High Court decided that this Perak family are Malaysians

According to Kamaladevi's lawyer New Sin Yew, High Court judicial commissioner Noor Ruwena Md Nurdin had said that citizenship is a fundamental right and is a right that must be interpreted liberally, following the Federal Court decisions in two citizenship cases — known as the CTEB case (based on the minority judgment by the chief justice) as well as the CCH case.

“It was not disputed that the grandmother of the first Plaintiff is a Malaysian citizen. Her customary marriage to the grandfather of the first Plaintiff is recognised as being valid under Section 4 of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act. So it follows that their child, the first Plaintiff’s mother, is a Malaysian by operation of law.

“And if the first plaintiff’s mother is a Malaysian by operation of law, it also follows that the 1st Plaintiff is a Malaysian. The same therefore applies for the first Plaintiff’s children and their children,” New told Malay Mail when asked about the High Court judge's decision.

Kamaladevi is the first plaintiff in this court case.

In other words, the High Court had found that all four generations — Kamaladevi's mother, Kamaladevi herself, Kamaladevi's children, Kamaladevi's grandchildren — are entitled under the law to be Malaysian citizens.

When asked about the recognition that Kamaladevi and her family have Malaysian citizenship as of right despite the documentation issues they faced, New noted that the judge had indicated that there are sometimes those who do not register due to literacy issues.

When asked by Malay Mail, Shugan said the High Court had found that Kamaladevi and her family had successfully shown their lineage in court, and that there has been at least one person with a Malaysian identity card (IC) in every generation in the family.

“The very fact that the uncle of the first Plaintiff had an IC while the first Plaintiff's mother does not, and the first Plaintiff's sister has an IC while the first Plaintiff does not, is not an ordinary situation,” he said regarding the High Court's decision.

Even if the government's argument — that the children should follow the mother's citizenship status — were to be used in this Perak case, evidence in court shows that Kamaladevi's grandmother is a Malaysian citizen and the High Court viewed that it would be unfair to determine Kamaladevi's mother and Kamaladevi to be stateless, Shugan said.

Senior federal counsel Norazlinawati Mohd Arshad represented the government in this case.

For more about the Perak family's story, read here.

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