The year-long coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on many non-citizens in Malaysia.
Every year, about 200,000 visas are issued to this sector, involving Malaysian citizens who have established families with foreign spouses or partners.
Even before the pandemic, binational families were living precarious lives. Precarity is a condition of near-nothingness, a situation of extreme vulnerability and marginalisation caused by socioeconomic, cultural and political discrimination. Covid-19 has heightened their vulnerability.
Economic precarity happens when foreign spouse visas are stamped with “strictly prohibited for employment”. This sets the hidden struggle of foreign spouses – especially the highly educated or those who have expertise Malaysia could have tapped.
For as long as they remain in Malaysia, the talents and skills of these foreign spouses will remain dormant and hidden. This sets a condition of economic dependency towards the Malaysian spouse or partner – a condition that does not bode well, especially when a single earner’s income is insufficient to cope with rising inflation.
It is hard to fathom why this is happening in a country where millions of foreign workers are allowed to work, but the foreign spouses of Malaysian citizens are left unemployed because of the “strictly prohibited for employment” stamp on their passports.
Economists, IT specialists, nurses, medical practitioners, physicists, teachers, chemists, engineers and others are left jobless even if they have expertise to offer to Malaysia. The ‘stamp’, even if it can be superseded if there is a job offer by a potential employer, psychologically divides ‘us’ and ‘the other’.
Foreign spouses often lament that once they submit their passports for documentation, the violet stamp illuminates an emotion of rejection to a would-be employer. In most cases, potential employers will not go out of their way to extend assistance to a would-be employee who is a foreign spouse.
Precarious experience is displayed, particularly among foreign male spouses. While it is relatively less stringent to apply for a long-term spouse visa for foreign female spouses, a different story unfolds for male spouses: their stay is sometimes on a monthly basis, and this too, strangely depends on the nationality of applicants.
Perhaps this situation is grounded in patriarchal thinking that men are supposed to bring the foreign bride to their home country rather than the reverse.
To receive a short-term visa, sometimes for years, is a test of willpower and patience. Some families leave Malaysia out of sheer despair, but not without keeping the heartaches and frustrations in their attempt to be at least given an opportunity to establish a decent life with their Malaysian spouse and children.
Precarity is experienced when Malaysian women do not have the right to transfer their citizenship to their biological children when they are born outside Malaysia. This is a policy that Malaysia needs to rethink seriously.
There is a present urgency to reform the law pertaining to the right to nationality of children born overseas by Malaysian mothers, especially at this time when global mobility for work, travel, business, study and leisure is available regardless of gender and ethnicity.
Malaysia also does not provide citizenship to children born out of wedlock from foreign women and Malaysian fathers. Precarious lives are displayed when most women and children are forced to leave the country and grow up without their Malaysian fathers in their developmental years.
The reverse is true for a Malaysian man’s inability to transfer his nationality/citizenship to his children because these children are viewed as illegitimate by Malaysia.
There is, however, a trend for foreign women to remain in the country and wait out and pray for the day that an amendment to the law will be made. Meanwhile, children are denied a nurturing school environment, being unable to attend school solely due to their undocumented status.
A far more depressing situation is when a young child is ‘given away’ to the closest relative, usually the Malaysian father’s sibling – sometimes forced by precarious circumstances – only to wish to reclaim the child later. This is done to give the child a legal identity in Malaysia. Imagine the emotional toll in the tug-of-war when told that they no longer have the right to their biological child.
East Malaysia is in a more precarious situation brought about by the complex interplay of different legal systems, which affect marriage and family/householding practices. Civil law interacting with Sharia law and native (adat) law, all are legally binding systems that implicate marriage, divorce, separation and the issue of illegitimate children.
Binational families in the country belong to a diverse group of families across ethnicity, geography, class, gender and creed. These are families established through legal means and are documented marriages involving citizens from another country.
Binational families also include the divorced, separated and widowed as well as undocumented marriages. There could be binational families whose documentation status is unclear. Examples include parents who are not married under any of the legal systems, such as native law, civil law or Sharia law.
During the pandemic, the issues confronting binational families are many and heightened. Some foreign spouses, many still holding long-term or short-term spouse visas, were trapped outside Malaysia and were denied entry because they are non-citizens, although their families are living in the country. Foreign spouses were initially required to pay huge quarantine fees and were classified as foreigners even if they had been living with Malaysia members of the family. This situation shows the grievous miscalculations the nation of Malaysia has created.
In times like this, we observe different householding patterns that depart from Malaysia’s conventional thinking of a traditional binational family. We see urgent requests for help from families whose mothers are foreign nationals denied as they do not qualify as beneficiaries of government aid. This applies to the situation where Malaysian men take on another family without the knowledge of the ‘state’, and hence are identified as unregistered marriages involving foreign nationals.
During the first six months of the movement control order, when mobility was severely restricted, these families had to rely on the generosity of friends and neighbours. Their ‘temporary husbands’ could not visit them or even provide them food during this time. In one case, a young mother was told to return across the border to fix her visa during the lockdown, only to be told by the child’s father not to come back and claim her child as she no longer has a right to the child.
Precarity must not be understood and simply accepted as a given situation to thousands of binational families in Malaysia. These precarious situations are installed by men in the state of power.
The government, in its willpower to be inclusive and to rally behind the general themes of the UN sustainable development goals, must ensure that legal reform should positively affect binational families without discrimination.
At the moment, the direction and basis are founded on impermanence. It is impermanence – or the temporariness of intimacy and love – which becomes a breaking bond that facilitates precarious lives.
The powers that be must urgently review existing policies and set matters right. We are dealing with human lives not inanimate objects.