Illustrated by Alanis Mah / Instagram: @_paperfox_

Alyssa*, 23, Jenny*, 22 and Anisah*, 30 were born in Sabah. But at around 12-years-old all three unexpectedly found themselves as bukan warganegara, or non-citizens.

In Malaysia, it is up to parents or guardians to register children above the age of 12 for a MyKad—a single blue identification card that provides every Malaysian with social security and welfare. 

For Alyssa and Jenny, the National Registration Department (NRD) had rejected their applications due to the illegitimacy of their parents’ marriage, according to law. 

Meanwhile, Anisah did not have a legitimate birth certificate despite being born in Sabah.

This has led all three to a lifelong struggle of pursuing basic access to rights, including to an education. 

The discrimination begins at birth because of an “illegitimate child” law under Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, says Founder and Director of ANAK (Advocates for Non-Discrimination and Knowledge) Anne Baltazar. 

ANAK is a Sabah-based organisation advocating for stateless and undocumented children in the State, most of whom are of Indonesian and Filipino descent.

“Parents are only able to register the births of their children if they present authorities with legitimate marriage certificates. It is a form of moral policing which perpetuates the cycle of statelessness”, says Anne. 

In 2011, The Borneo Post published an explainer on the procedures and laws on MyKad and citizenship. NRD clarified that citizenship of a child will have to follow the status of the child’s birth mother. 

Meanwhile, according to The Star, the ‘colour coding’ of birth certificates was only introduced by Putrajaya in 2011 as a response to the high number of illegal immigrants in Sabah. 

These policies do not underscore Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which states that “[a] child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”

Anisah: “I smuggled myself out of the country to attend university.”

Anisah realised early on that she would have a challenging life. 

“I was born in Keningau to parents of Indonesian descent and grew up with a very complicated birth status,” said Anisah. 

“Up until I reached school-age, my mum had to keep looking for a school that would accept me because once again, the question they would ask is “where are your documents?” 

“Luckily, school registration at that time was a lot more lenient and I was able to go to school with other children, have the same teachers and receive the same education.”

“Most importantly, through school, I was able to have healthcare access as every time I fell sick, I could ask the school to write a note for me to receive free treatment at public clinics like other children.”

But when she turned 12-years-old, Anisah’s family found out, during the process of applying for a MyKad, that her birth was not recorded in the system.

The birth certificate that she had was fraudulent. 

“My father, who left us when we were little, had asked a “contact” to help register my birth at that time because my father is illiterate,” she said. That birth registration was a scam. 

But through the good faith of her teachers and those around her, Anisah was able to complete her education up until SPM-level.

“Maybe they (teachers) saw that I had achieved good grades, so they tutup mata sebelah, or turned a blind eye to my issues,” said Anisah. 

However, not being able to pursue higher education left her disappointed.

“It was in the littlest things that I am reminded of my status as a non-citizen, or stateless person.” 

“For instance, I couldn’t pursue higher education in Malaysia that could award me professional employment even though my ambition was to become a teacher,” she added.

“No matter what people say, I still feel that formal education is so important. Because education can become a stepping stone towards a better future and for everything else in life.” 

“Finally, my mother advised me to go to Indonesia to finish my tertiary-level education.”

That meant Anisah, without proper travel documents, had to travel via the illegal route or jalan tikus, from Keningau, Sabah towards Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In Indonesia, Anisah was able to obtain documents which allowed her to complete a degree at a university there.

In 2015, Anisah began a long process to obtain citizenship and in October 2020, after five years of persistent back and forth with Malaysian officials, she finally received her blue MyKad. 

“For most people like you all, it is an issue of technicality; a small document that allows you access to education, medical and health facilities and to travel,” she said. 

“But for me, receiving my MyKad means that I finally have a life. Because for the past 28 years, ever since I was born, I had lived my entire life as a stateless person. Bukan warganegara.” 

“The feeling is as if I was dead, and now I am alive again.”

Alyssa: “I was told to register for university as a foreign student, but I didn’t even have a passport.”

Alyssa was born in 1998, while her Malaysian father and Filipino mother registered their marriage in 1999, which has caused significant problems to her legal identity.

At 12-years-old, her original birth certificate was revoked and officials replaced it with a red birth certificate which labeled Alyssa’ citizenship as “tidak ditentukan” or unverified. 

She was still able to complete her public education up until STPM as teachers could register her for national exams as a “foreign student”.

But Alyssa says that public schooling was not without its hurdles. 

“It was after PMR and during my later secondary school years that I started losing confidence due to my status,” said Alyssa. 

“I would refuse requests from my teachers and friends to join extra-curricular competitions outside of school as I was afraid that I would be exposed as stateless.” 

“By the time I was in Form 5, I started feeling bad because my classmates could apply for matriculation at public universities but I could not.”

“After I received my SPM results of 6As and 2Bs, my only option was to continue STPM. But that too was a struggle because I did not have proper documents.”

Alyssa was required to obtain special permission from the State Education Department to attend school as a “non-citizen” to complete her STPM certification. 

But by then, she said that she did not have the heart for studies anymore because of her uncertainty about the future. 

She described those years completing her Form 6 education as a period where she had reached a severely low point in her life as she watched her friends leave Sabah for better opportunities, while she felt stuck. 

By the time she graduated Form 6, she was not able to enroll in University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) because she had no MyKad. 

The university officials had told her to apply as a foreign student, but she was unable to do that either because she could not obtain a passport. 

Finally, in 2019, Alyssa sought permission from her father to enroll at a private institution here in Kota Kinabalu. 

“I asked my dad if he could afford to sponsor my studies at a private institution instead, as I still felt like I wanted to pursue a tertiary education,” she said.

“To my surprise,  he said yes. At that time, I felt that my dad was able to tell I was sad about my situation, and he also wanted the best for me.” 

“Even as I am pursuing my studies now, my biggest fear is that I am unable to find a job after graduation because of my identity.” 

“I have a fear that I will become nothing, that I cannot meet the expectation of success despite my good achievement in my studies.” 

“I just don’t want to waste my youth. At my age, I should dare to dream more and do more. But because I don’t have proper identification, that has limited me on what I can actually do in life.”

Jenny: “I earned 8As, 2Bs for my national exams but was unable to secure a university placement for two years.”

Like Alyssa, Jenny too had her original birth certificate replaced with a red birth certificate when she turned 12. 

Echoing Alyssa’ sentiments, Jenny felt a lot of uncertainty when  she reached the end of her secondary school years as she watched her friends go on to get their driving licenses, open bank accounts and transition into adulthood without a hitch. 

For two years after her SPM, Jenny said she spent her days in a daze despite receiving 8As and 2Bs for her national examination results.

“I felt bummed out and sad because I didn’t know what to do next after SPM. I could not do what everyone else was doing and emotionally that took a toll on me.”

“I also felt like I did not want to be stuck in Sabah. I want to further my studies in KL. It is my right and my want,” said Jenny.

It was during those gap years that Jenny volunteered with ANAK to learn more about her situation and the issue of ‘statelessness’ in Sabah. 

The volunteering was what prompted Jenny to want to pursue a career in law. 

With a renewed sense of hope, Jenny began applying for private institutions across the country.

“I applied for a few but was rejected. Luckily, a university in Peninsular Malaysia was able to understand my situation and let me sit for their entry examinations for their pre-university program.”

The next hurdle for Jenny was to apply for special travel permits from authorities to be able to fly to Kuala Lumpur from Kota Kinabalu. 

“Once I almost ‘kena’ – officers had threatened to take away my expired passport and birth certificate,” she said.

“Up until now I am still a bit traumatised by airports and immigration. I also carry around my old passport as proof that I was ‘once Malaysian’.” 

“It is funny how I’m learning about the law but still I am not a Malaysian and I could not get the privilege of a citizen,” said Jenny who is now in her second year of law school. 

Waiting on citizenship under Article 15A

The process of obtaining citizenship is not without its trials. Especially as it involves multiple applications once one application is rejected, and a long waiting time.

The logistics of the ordeal itself is enough to break someone emotionally and mentally. 

The process left Anisah in limbo for five years between 2015 and 2020 as she was unable to pursue formal work, in between having to care for elderly parents. 

Meanwhile, Jenny is waiting on their citizenship applications under Article 15A of the Federal Constitution for more than a year.

Article 15A describes special powers by the government to grant citizenship to  a child under 21 years of age under special circumstances.

Jenny’s first application was rejected without justification. She is now waiting for a reply to her second application.

“The latest application I made was in 2019, at the age of 21. Since then, I’ve been waiting for about a year and a half for my identification card (IC).”

“Moving forward, I am hoping for a reply by the Home Ministry on my 15A application in order to further my last year studying law in the UK.”

“It has always been a big dream of mine to be able to study overseas, but due to my lack of documents I had to compromise and work with what I have,” said Jenny. 

As for Alyssa, during the time of writing, she received word that her application made in 2019 was approved after one and a half years of waiting. 

Alyssa described her feelings as anxious as during the wait. 

“I have sacrificed time that is meant for me to pursue my dreams. But because of this issue, I’ve been delayed.”

“For them, waiting is easy. But for me who has  waited so many years, it has only kept me living in anxiety,” said Alyssa.

*The names of persons mentioned have been changed to protect their identities.

This article is a collaboration between Borneo Speaks and ANAK; and ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion. Please visit ANAK on Instagram to learn more. For more information on ARTICLE 19, please follow this link: https://www.article19.org/region/malaysia