Bangsa Malaysia: Our citizenship defined

With the jarring inequalities and discrimination targeted at some Malaysian communities, can we really blame those who pursue greener pastures elsewhere, asks Syerleena Abdul Rashid.

Photo credit: national-express-malaysia.blogspot.com

Photo credit: national-express-malaysia.blogspot.com

The issue of citizenship has always been a sensitive topic for Malaysians.

And xenophobia appears to be escalating: look at how Malaysians handled anyone who “looked” foreign during GE13 and note the incessant remarks made by several politicians telling other Malaysians to “Balik to … (wherever they are assumed to have come from…insert ancestral country here)”.

In the midst of this, we need to ask ourselves what is our citizenship worth? Citizenship has been defined as ‘a state (that) consists of a number of people’; however, not all of its people may be citizens.

Generally, a person’s citizenship is assumed by the passport they hold. Whatever it is, citizens are members of a state, who owe allegiance to it and are entitled to its protections or benefits, whichever is prioritised by the immediate government.

These benefits come with conditions and these conditions guarantee several important political rights, such as the right to vote, and civil and basic rights such as public health care. (Public health care is a basic human right which can be claimed by migrants also.)

In addition to the rather technical aspects of citizenship, positive concepts are also distinguished by modern thinkers. Citizens are highly encouraged to participate in active roles and contribute to the community to the fullest extent possible. They must engage and facilitate societal advancements in terms of morale and material progression.

Education must be a government priority, with the quality and level, well considered. This enables fellow citizens to form intelligent opinions in public affairs. Why is this important? To ensure that actions and ideas which are presented, at any level, are conducive to the general well- being of the community.

In Malaysia, it has become strikingly evident that our communities are broken into three classes: citizens who enjoy full benefits, citizens who do not enjoy full benefits, even though they are citizens, and foreigners.

Up to a certain level, the first two classes may enjoy the same privileges but these come with conditions such as the enforced quota system by our government. Additionally, these two classes may both receive the protection of the state in which they live, in respect of their life and property. Both are expected to pay taxes and respect existing laws.

But there are important differences between the rights and privileges conferred on these two classes of people by the state. Enter the ‘Bumiputera status’ that clearly influences who will get a bigger slice of the Malaysian pie between the first two classes.

This policy provides preferential quotas for places in the local universities and comfortable government jobs. Under this quota system, ethnic considerations and not just academic achievements determine which candidates are successful.

Malaysia has certain policies and regulations that exclude non-Bumiputeras from receiving certain privileges, although the Constitution provides certain guarantees of rights to all citizens regardless of racial/ethnic background.

To further drive a wedge between communities in society, a handful of politicians insist on playing a dangerous political game of (mis)using religion, fear and ignorance. These three elements make up a malevolent concoction that threatens our constitution and societal well-being.

Some politicians are aware of how vital the role of education is and how it can be used as a tool to manipulate and regulate the people. Escalating issues of racism and crumbling morality can be blamed on our lack of education standards.

Having our ministers assure us that our education level is on par (if not, better than) European standards is a cruel joke. In present day society, achieving 20 A’s does not mean a thing when our students are incapable of forming critical opinions and lateral thoughts.

The third class is a class by itself: the foreigners. The foreigners do not possess citizenship and are not allowed to enjoy the benefits, privileges and rights of the first two classes. They may be migrants, expatriates (although expats may enjoy certain benefits more so then the others), undocumented immigrants, refugees (in the eyes of the government and the law, a refugee is considered an “illegal immigrant”; therefore subject to deportation and other acts that breach human rights), and stateless Malaysians.

The issue of ‘stateless Malaysians’ and how a thing like this could happen to any one of “us” needs serious attention. There are many reasons why, but it all boils down to two factors: exploitation and manipulation. There is no denying that a majority of stateless Malaysians are illiterate and are of a lower socio-economic status.

But what makes the whole issue unnerving is that just like the first two classes, stateless Malaysians were born in Malaysia. The system that oversees citizenship application processes needs further scrutiny and if possible, an overhaul.

At present, the Malaysian government does not implement jus soli, where, if a person is born within the jurisdiction of the state (i.e. Malaysia), he or she acquires citizenship irrespective of the nationality of the parents. The notion was aggressively refuted during the Federation’s infant years. So, it is not uncommon to come across a ‘Malaysian’, born and raised here, but after 50 years is still waiting to obtain a simple MyKad, however fundamentally wrong this may be.

‘Stateless Malaysians’, although born and raised here, are denied proper health care and education, and are not permitted to contribute to society. But their skills are permitted to be exploited (e.g. in estates where a majority of stateless Malaysians are reported to have come from)! And just because the media have stopped reporting their plight, it does not mean the problem ceases to exist.

With the jarring inequalities and discrimination targeted at some Malaysian communities, can we really blame those who willingly give up their citizenship to pursue greener pastures elsewhere?

And how can we justify overlooking the foreigners and stateless Malaysians who want nothing more than to be integrated into our society, hoping that one day, they too, can be Malaysians?

Malaysians are fond of taking things for granted. We are famous for our apathy and complacency but in the light of the recent incidents that violate our basic human rights, just what is our citizenship worth? But we just can’t afford to continue with our apathetic ways, if we are to fully embrace a Bangsa Malaysia – which surpasses the Malay, Chinese, Indian and “lain-lain” communal categories.

We still have a long way to go to figure out what Bangsa Malaysia really means.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Syerleena Abdul Rashid, an Aliran member, is a consultant in sports, fitness and water sports. A certified helmsman, she is currently in the midst of post-graduate studies in tourism development.

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