Parliamentary committee should scrutinise regressive amendments before they are put to vote

Stateless children in Malaysia - EPA/AL JAZEERA

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Projek Stability and Accountability for Malaysia (Projek Sama) and parliamentary consultant Maha Balakrishnan urge the government to subject the remaining three regressive constitutional amendments to a full review by a parliamentary special select committee if it insists on pursuing them.

We welcome the home minister’s announcement on 22 March that the amendments to grant Malaysian mothers equal rights to confer citizenship to their overseas-born children [the mothers’ amendment, Section 1(b) & 1(c), Part II of the Second Schedule) may be still tabled for first reading on Monday, 25 March, while two regressive amendments relating to Malaysia-born stateless children, many of whom are indigenous, abandoned or foundling [Section 1(e), Part II and Section 19B, Part III of the Second Schedule] would be dropped.

This decision is commendable. It is consistent with public support for granting Malaysian mothers equal rights, and with our social values that reject the victimisation of children. The mothers’ amendment was also promised in the election manifestos of the government parties.

In coming to this decision, the cabinet has prioritised compassion, a quality the people of Malaysia hold dear, and one of the six pillars of “Madani” (a civil and compassionate administration).

In stark contrast, there is no broad consensus for – but instead strong objections to – the remaining three regressive amendments proposed by the government, which will disempower:

  • children of permanent residents [Section 1(a) Part II, Second Schedule];
  • citizenship applicants between 18 and 21 [Articles 15A and 19(2)]; and
  • foreign wives [Articles 26(2) read with 15(1)].

The first two regressive amendments may leave children stateless and therefore deprived of reasonable access to healthcare, education and social welfare, and subject to exploitation. The third regressive amendment threatens to separate mothers from their children.

READ MORE:  Government must not table regressive amendments to citizenship laws

Hence, the objections against the three amendments are well-grounded: all children are blessings and the family institution is highly treasured, whether in Islam or other religious beliefs practised in Malaysia.

Therefore, any attempt to table these regressive amendments would be questionable.

Before the out-of-the-blue announcement by the Ministry of Home Affairs in mid-2023, these amendments were not campaigned or advocated by any civil society groups, political parties or elected representatives. Neither have legal opinions in support of them emerged from the courts.

In light of this, the minister should lead with courage by first presenting a green paper to collate public feedback, or at least a white paper to justify the government’s position, before bringing these amendments to Parliament.

These regressive amendment proposals also do not appear in any of the Madani parties’ 2022 general election manifestos.

Had the parties revealed prior to the general election that they would take the drastic step of harming the existing citizenship rights of children or the sanctity of family units if they came into power, enough voters might have voted differently and changed the outcome of the election.

Therefore, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail should present bill containing only the mothers’ amendment.

If the minister insists on introducing the remaining regressive amendments, they must be presented in a separate bill, which must be subjected to the fullest parliamentary scrutiny, including a review by a parliamentary special select committee.

To achieve this, members of the House of Representatives can take the following actions:

  • As soon as the bill is presented for a first reading, move a motion under standing order 54(1) to refer the bill to a select or special select committee. This will enable both the policy principles and details of the bill to be fully ventilated (standing order 55(1)), in consultation with all relevant stakeholders (standing order 83). As it is customary for ministers to move this type of motion, MPs should first press the minister to do so. If he fails to do so, the standing orders do not prevent any MP from bringing this motion (standing order 54(1)), which they can do without notice (standing order 26(1)(j))
  • Alternatively, if the bill moves to a second reading, it can be postponed. Any MP can propose to amend the second reading motion to read: “that the Bill be read a second time on this day six months” (standing order 53(4)). The MP needs to give one day’s notice of his or her motion (standing order 53(4)) or
  • MPs have another opportunity to refer the bill to a select committee in the committee stage of the bill. To do so, a motion must be brought immediately after the bill is read a second time (standing order 54(2)). A committee in this instance can only review the details of the bill (not its policy principles) (standing order 55(2)). But it can still consult all relevant stakeholders. Any MP can move such a motion without notice (standing order 54(2))
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Any one of the options laid out above can ensure that the remaining regressive amendments are not rushed through Parliament. If the bill is rushed through the legislative stages on 25–27 March, MPs will have very little time to fully debate the bill, limiting their opportunity to consult experts and stakeholders on the technical aspects of the bill and to propose amendments to the bill.

We call on all MPs to fulfil their oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Federal Constitution as per the Sixth Schedule. It is a grave matter and the highest responsibility to change the nation’s Constitution, let alone to remove constitutionally guaranteed rights.

It should not be hurried. It should not be done for the purpose of political expediency or administrative convenience. When it comes to the Constitution, MPs’ votes should be guided by their oath and not by fear of contravening their respective party constitutions.

Despite the ‘anti-party hopping’ law, under Article 49A, MPs are protected under Article 63 from being liable to legal proceedings for the votes they cast. If the government’s amendments are justified, proportionate and necessary, it should not fear subjecting them to the scrutiny of a parliamentary special select committee.

Members of the 15th Parliament should emulate the exemplary wisdom, courage and patriotism shown by members of the 14th Parliament on 11 April 2022. Because of their strong objections, the poorly worded constitutional amendment bill to introduce the anti-hopping law was not voted on when first tabled.

The bill directly affected freedom of association (Article 10) and the obligations of MPs to their political parties (the proposed Article 49A), and MPs did not want the bill passed without thorough parliamentary committee scrutiny.

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Because of the overwhelming pressure from across the aisle, the then de facto law minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, secured the Perikatan Nasional government’s consent to have the bill studied by a parliamentary special select committee, resulting in a unanimous passing of the revised bill three months later, on 28 July.

This 15th Parliament should accord the same respect and attentiveness to the constitutional citizenship rights of children and women. We pray that the wisdom, courage and integrity of both Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail and the 222 MPs will prevail. – Projek Sama

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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