Crazy runaround in helping stateless woman in Malaysia

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Stateless children in Malaysia - Photograph: EPA/Aljazeera

Jeyakumar Devaraj describes a stateless woman’s exhausting ordeal in trying to get her status regularised in Malaysia.

Kamaladevi is now 57 years old. Up till 2017, she had no personal documents, and was effectively stateless.

As a result she has not been able to work, to get married, to open a bank account or even to apply for a motorbike licence. She is completely housebound.
 
Kamaladevi was brought to Malaysia in 1963 by her mother Kulanthaiammal, an Indian citizen, who had married an estate worker in Sungai Siput. Kamaladevi’s mother, settled down in Plang Estate Sungai Siput and after a few years obtained Malaysian citizenship. Her first born, Subramaniam, was given a red identity card when he turned 12.

But when Kamaladevi turned 12 a couple of years later, her application for an identity card was turned down because her mother’s passport and the attached entry permit could not be traced. The family swears that these documents were not returned to the family after her brother’s identity card application.

The family made repeated attempts, going to the Registration Department in Ipoh, Penang and Petaling Jaya several times. At one point they even engaged a lawyer to help them out but to no avail – because according to existing regulations, a person like Kamaladevi needs to show her entry permit in order to proceed with the registration exercise. In the meantime, her four younger siblings all received blue identity cards, got married and went on with their lives.
 
Kamaladevi’s family came to me in 2010, and after trying to negotiate with the Ipoh Registration Department and locate her entry permit (fruitlessly), I decided to ask the home minister for help in 2013.

Zahid Hamidi referred me to the director general of registration, and they, after failing to locate her entry permit, advised me to get her an Indian passport and use that to apply for an entry permit.

That took a lot of effort and time. First, we had to extract her birth certificate from Tamil Nadu – a process that required us to file an application in a Magistrates’ Court in Tamil Nadu. We succeeded after more than a year.

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Then it took another year to apply for an Indian passport through the Indian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.
 
Then the Registration Department in Putrajaya told us we would have to go to the Immigration Department to get the entry permit.
The Immigration Department referred us to the visa division, who found out that Kamaldevi’s father’s name, which was spelt “Thanapal” in his Malaysian identity card, was spelt “Dhanapal” in Kamaladevi’s Indian birth certificate and passport. They refused to proceed. Our explanation that the Tamil “Th” alphabet can be written as “Th” or “Dh” when Romanised was not accepted. The Immigration wanted a letter from the Indian High Commission stating that.
 
The Indian High Commission refused to do so saying that they did not have the expertise. They referred us to their outsourced visa application services in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.

That unit asked for statutory declarations and made us make a few trips to see them. They finally said they could not do it.

Finally, we had to go the Tamil Language Department in the University of Malaya for a letter stating that “Th” and “Dh” can be interchangeably used.  
 
The visa section of the Putrajaya Immigration Department then found the fact that her Indian passport did not have any entry stamp highly irregular.

We were then referred to the enforcement division of the Immigration Department to assess the penalty for her being in Malaysia since 1963 without proper documents. We were told we would have to pay a penalty of several thousand ringgit. Luckily for us the enforcement division cleared us and gave us a one-month special visa.
 
We went back to the visa and entry permit division in Putrajaya but the officer there asked us to follow-up with our application in Ipoh.

We tried but Ipoh Immigration told us that Kamaladevi does not meet the requirements to be given an entry permit, and referred us back to Putrajaya.

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Then Putrajaya told us we need to get ministerial approval.

We sent a letter to the minister. His staff sent a letter to Ipoh and asked us to go there again.

At Ipoh, we were again told they could not handle it.
 
The visa division at Putrajaya then told us we actually need a letter from the minister specifying that she be given an entry permit. (Why were we not told this at the outset?)

This, I managed to procure in late March 2018 when I met him in Parliament. His staff said they would send the original to the visa department and only gave me the photostat copy of his note.

When I again took Kamaldevi to Putrajaya Immigration in early April, the visa department said that the photocopy we showed them would not suffice. They needed the original letter signed by the minister!

Attempts to contact the minister’s personal assistant were successful on and off and they made promises to forward the letter.

Then the elections came, and the minister is no longer the minister.

The Putrajaya visa department told us a week ago that the letter has come but that it is no longer valid as the minister has changed. Aiyoh!

In the meantime, Kamaladevi’s one-month special pass – the fourth – was due to expire in five days and she had been asked to leave the country. She had never left Malaysia and is from a working class family. The family was apprehensive that officialdom would find some excuse to blacklist her and make re-entry into Malaysia problematic. I shared their concern.
 
Many middle-class people blame the people without documents for being careless and for not prioritising getting the documents – for being lazy. But as the abbreviated account above shows, the regulations by which the bureaucracy operates have you jumping through hoops repeatedly like a circus animal. At times, it looked as if they made up the rules as they went along just to make it more difficult.
 
We have a new government in place now. I hope they will seriously look at the regulations governing applications such as Kamaladevi’s to see if some of them are too onerous and unnecessary.

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Can the regulation be simplified? We have done the DNA test that shows that Kulainthammal is the biological mother of Kamaladevi. We have the sworn affidavits of her mother, the sibling and the neighbours. Why then the need for so many other documents and procedures? Why torture the applicants? (And their helpers!)
 
Usually it is the poor and the uneducated who fail to keep their documents in order. And it can really blight their lives – Kamaladevi is an example. She missed so many opportunities in life because of her IC problem. And she is not the only one!
 
I seriously hope that the procedures will be simplified to make things easier for individuals like Kamaladevi. If I may make a practical suggestion, the new minister for home affairs should set up a special committee to review and fast-track cases like this.

Our Constitution gives the minister adequate power to approve these cases, but as the minister has a whole lot of other issues to look into, it is not surprising that citizenship cases take a long time to resolve.

I would further suggest, if I may, that Dato Sivasubramaniam is chosen to head this committee. I have met him several times in the reception halls of the Registration Department in Putrajaya and can vouch that he fully understands the issues at hand.

As head of this special committee, Sivasubramaniam should have access to the home minister at least at monthly intervals to get the all-important ministerial signature on the cases the committee has vetted.

We need a better system in place. I hope the Pakatan Harapan government will rise to the occasion. Let us be kinder to people like Kamaladevi.

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