Monday, 23 July 2007

Privilege called citizenship

Citizenship defines the place one calls home for life, where one rests one’s weary head after having travelled the globe. It gives one identity

THE confusion is solved. When earlier this month Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Radzi Sheikh Ahmad told Parliament that 106,003 Malaysians had given up their citizenship to opt for foreign ones, he was referring to statistics dating back to independence.

Since 1996 to last April, some 26,804 non-Malays had surrendered their citizenship while another 5,310 had had their citizenships revoked under the Constitution, he said in a written reply to Batu Gajah MP Fong Po Kuan.

Four days later, his deputy, Datuk Tan Chai Ho, dropped a bombshell. Some 79,000 or 70% of those who had ventured to greener pastures were Malays, he elaborated.

Malaysians gasped. One could throw a stone and find a non-Malay emigrant: a former colleague who had settled in New Zealand, three in Australia, the Punjabi woman heading off to Canada to join her sister. But Malays?

On July 19, Radzi stepped in to clarify the statistics. Only 10,411 Malays had left the country since independence – averaging 200 per year.

“Most were women who migrated to follow their husbands,” said Radzi.

Chinese numbered 86,078, Indians 8,667 and other races 847.

Apart from marriage, non-Malays leave for practical reasons, free education and job opportunities being the most common.

Tan had named the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia as favourite destinations among former Malaysians.

“Some study abroad and just remain,” said Radzi.

“Among the men, job opportunity was a strong reason to leave. They bring their families with them, which doubles the numbers.

“Some countries such as the United States require one to be a citizen to hold jobs in government as well as the private sector. The Green Card (denoting permanent residence) is not enough.”

In the midst of the confusion, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi issued a pointed warning.

“Those who have given up their citizenship cannot get it back if they suddenly want to become Malaysians again.”

This is true.

A Malay woman from Perak who married an Englishman two decades ago gave up her citizenship in the first flush of romance. After a few years, the marriage turned sour and she tried to return to her siblings. Her efforts were in vain.

A similar predicament befell a Muar-born man who had worked as a “mess-boy” for a British admiral in Singapore in the 1950s. When the admiral was posted back to England, he took the youth, then in his late teens, along with him.

There, Pak Long (not his real name) grew up, bought property and assuaged his homesickness by organising summer camps for Malaysian students. He even partially financed a few.

Now in his 70s, Pak Long felt the call of his hometown. He sold his property in England and returned a fairly wealthy man, hoping to have his citizenship reinstated. The doors were shut to him, too.

To many Malaysians, citizenship is entwined with the idea of loyalty. To give up one’s citizenship is seen by both the authorities and society as akin to renouncing one’s love for one’s native land. In their eyes, citizenship is a privilege not to be trifled with.

Malaysia’s neighbours understand this. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers from Indonesia and the Philippines have flooded Malaysia and are busily trying to obtain original or forged permanent residence cards, or the MyKad denoting citizenship, to pass themselves off as Malaysians. Malaysia is their land of honey.

In Sabah alone, 17,308 or more than one in four of the 61,811 Filipino refugees currently holding immigration visit passes (IMM13) have been granted permanent resident status.

But if citizenship is so precious, why do so many give it up seemingly so easily?

Malaysia’s Constitution does not permit dual citizenship. That would account for the numbers who, after a few years of commuting to and fro to keep their papers up to date, allow them to lapse.

With fast-track globalisation, many today are in fact “citizens of the world.” They owe allegiance to no single nation and are confident of gaining employment anywhere.

They are also comfortable retiring in countries far from their lands of birth, not least of which because after having paid high income taxes for the years they have lived there, they stand to benefit from generous social security plans. Of course, many of these countries, too, have stringent citizenship requirements.

Australia’s anti-Asian hype, led by independent MP Pauline Hanson’s One Nation campaign, typified this sentiment. Even in Europe and post-9/11 United States, pockets of racial biases exist.

Citizenship gives a person the right to vote. He pays taxes, may buy land and could be enlisted in its armed forces.

A network of family and friends accentuates his childhood memories and loyalty. Most of all, he has the right to speak out on issues relating to the running of his country, which a foreigner, being a guest, might hesitate to express.

There were Malaysians who at different periods of the nation’s democratic evolution felt constrained to leave for societies which they felt were more “liberal” and provided space for greater “freedom of expression.” But these phases passed.

Pressured by Tan's alarming figures, Umno information chief Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib put out an exploratory theory that merantau (wanderlust) is in the Malay blood.

Beyond the archipelago, enclaves of Malay descendents live in Sri Lanka and South Africa. But seafaring pre-dated the nation state, when citizenship was an alien concept.

A Malaysian diaspora is exactly what the country needs to build up if it wants to have an edge in the shrinking world. Overseas Chinese have proven their worth to the land of their ancestors; the Indian diaspora is following suit, notably in IT.

The importance of citizenship is encapsulated in the concept of jus soli. During the independence struggle, Malays had objected to the Malayan Union proposal because they saw it as “giving in” to British demands that non-Malays be given citizenship.

Meanwhile, founding fathers such as Tun Tan Cheng Lock saw inculcating Malayan loyalty among the local Chinese population as the only way to build up support for the Malayan Chinese Association which he led and whose focus was to get citizenship rights in an independent Malaya.

The Federation of Malaya Agreement (1948) citizenship clauses were so stringent that in 1951, Chinese citizens of Malaya numbered only 12%.

Race has always been the cornerstone of Malaysian politics.

Singapore’s acute transient nationalism is an example not to follow. In its attempts to draw as many professionals as possible to boost its economy, the city-state has found that the foreign talents do not see the super-efficient island as home.

Meanwhile, homegrown Singaporeans resent the exemption for foreigners from the two-year compulsory national service, followed by 10 years of reservist duty, pointed out columnist Seah Cheang Nee.

Malaysia has to strike a balance between sending its citizens out and imbuing them with a sense of belonging. This is what the tanah tumpahnya darah ku (this land I would die for) is all about in the first line of the national anthem.

Citizenship defines the place one calls home for life, where one rests one’s weary head after having travelled the globe. It gives one identity. It is the place to live out one’s twilight years. Ideally, it is “the best place on earth.”