Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia's Selective Citizenship

Written by johnleemk on 3:25:12 pm Mar 2, 2008.
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In less than a week, Malaysian citizens of all stripes and colours will go to the polls. What empowers us to choose the government that sits in Parliament and Putrajaya is one thing: citizenship. You do not get to vote (not legally anyway) simply by being a Muslim, or a Southeast Asian of Malay stock. To vote, you must present proof of your Malaysian citizenship.

Now, citizenship is a big deal. That's why we have this huge fight every few years (usually between elections) about the "social contract", and the value of a Malaysian citizenship. Does it change depending on what race you are, or are all Malaysian citizens equal in rights and standing?

The Malaysian government would have it that we have no second-class citizens. They would object strongly to anyone protesting that there is unequal and unjust discrimination amongst citizens on the basis of race. Strong affirmative action is not tantamount to apartheid, they say. In that sense, they are probably quite right.

But where they are wrong is where their true mentality comes out. This is a government whose UMNO leaders not too long ago told Malaysians over live television things like: "If they question our rights, then we should question theirs. So far we have not heard the Malays questioning their right to citizenship when they came in droves from other countries"; "We will not budge an inch to defend our rights, we will defend it to the last drop of our blood"; and "Do not challenge the Malays - it will ignite our spirit to run amok."

So in reality, there is this strong sense that non-Malays are, in some way, second-class citizens. But why is that? Inferior loyalty on our part? Hundreds of non-Malays gave their lives fighting the communists. Are you telling me that because of a few bad apples amongst the non-Malays, we are going to declare a Mat Rempit to be more patriotic than a soldier who died fighting for his country, just because he was Chinese?

Is it because Malays have been here longer than other races? Then obviously the Orang Asli should be considered Malay as well and accorded first-class citizenship — but they aren't. And what about people like the Peranakan, the Straits Chinese, who have unbroken genealogies dating to the sultanate of Melaka, while we have men like Mohd Khir Toyo and Syed HamidAlbar, whose fathers literally were Indonesian immigrants?

Is it because of some ambiguous social contract, with vague provisions? Are we to accept this social contract without its terms explicitly being spelled out? Are we to accept it without any explanation of why it is constructed as such? Do you mean to tell me, someone born a Malaysian, someone who was raised a Malaysian, and someone who intends to die a Malaysian, that I am not quite a Malaysian, because of some stupid document that cannot be defended in any rational manner?

Regardless of how you try to defend it — no matter what arguments you use — the social contract is indefensible. Discrimination against your citizens — saying some are intrinsically better than and superior to others, simply because they were born to parents of the right race — that cannot be defended. It is apartheid, plain and simple. The only thing that matters, that should matter, is that we were born to a Malaysian parent. That we have Malaysian blood. That we choose to be Malaysian.

But, of course, that is not what the government thinks. To the government, citizenship is a flexible thing, easy to selectively define. When you hold Malaysian citizenship, you typically have all the responsibilities of citizenship accorded to you, and none of the privileges.

If you are a Muslim, you automatically cannot marry a non-Muslim, cannot convert to a non-Muslim religion, cannot attend non-Muslim religious events, and so forth — regardless of the reasons why you might want to do any of these things. As a citizen, you should be free to choose, regardless of what religion you happen to be born into. But, as Federal Justice Richard Malanjum astutely observed last year, we have a government that discriminates against Muslims by declaring they are less free than non-Muslims. As a non-Muslim I can visit a mosque. Why then can my Muslim friends not visit a church? Why the double standard?

As for the non-Malays, the government is quite fond of telling us to bugger off if we don't like the state of affairs in the country. As if, oh, I don't know, we do not have the same vote and the same power as any Malay to vote out the arrogant bastards who think we are will actually "balik tongsan" and abandon the only homeland we have ever known.

Yet, on the rare occasion that it seems someone might do this, the government declares: "You're a Malaysian citizen, and you will haul your ass right back here to get what you deserve under our laws. You see how these non-Malays can't be trusted? Let's not treat these pariahs like real citizens." Which is, of course, close to what actually happened in the Hindraf case when Syed Hamid Albar told foreign governments to ignore the pleas of Malaysian citizens because this was a Malaysian issue.

Well, what are we then? Are we Malaysian or non-Malaysian? Or are we not-quite Malaysian? Are we Malaysian only when it suits the government, and inferior Malaysians at all other times? What kind of country do we live in when the government can assume that it has the right to tell Malaysian citizens to either put up, or quit the country?

It should not matter what race or religion you are when you go to the polls — and indeed, it does not. Your right to vote is the same regardless of what colour or creed you are. The only thing that matters is your Malaysian citizenship. Say what you will, but I have never heard any insult even approaching the kind of penghinaan that this government has done to Malaysians of all stripes. By disrespecting the citizenship of one of us, it has disrespected the citizenship of us all. We all derive our citizenship from the same articles of the Constitution; we all derive our citizenship by virtue of being born into Malaysian families. When we go to the polls this 8th March, I beg you to remind the government of this simple fact: that citizenship and the benefits it confers are inalienable rights, belonging to all who justly deserve them.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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