January 18, 2021

Malaysia: The indignity of the indigenous

Linda Lumayag

The Malaysian term bumiputera, or “son of the soil” refers to people whose ancestors are native to Malaysia. But a large number of bumiputera – especially non-Malay indigenous people – are in fact stateless, because the state fails to recognize their marriage and other customs.

A multi-ethnic and culturally diverse country, Malaysia is home to some 32.4 million people (in 2018), of whom 3.2 million, or 9.8 percent, are classed as non-citizens. These include two types of stateless persons: native stateless indigenous people, and non-citizens who entered Malaysia after independence from British rule in 1957. The latter were mainly refugees from the Philippines and Indonesia who were initially granted refugee status but later became stateless.

Systematic data disaggregated by age, gender, ethnic group and nationality status are scarce. However, in Sarawak, a mainly indigenous region in Borneo, an estimated 66,000 persons of a total population of 2.6 million were considered stateless or undocumented by the National Registration Department in 2010. In all of Malaysia, about 200,000 persons applied for citizenship in 2018, but there is no indication of how many applications were made by members of the indigenous community.

Indigenous groups account for 11.8 percent of the combined population of the two parts of Malaysia: the peninsula, and the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo. Though they now live in the federal state of Malaysia, indigenous peoples have had distinct colonial and postcolonial historical experiences. The state structures that were established failed to understand the role of the customs (adat) of native peoples – not just regarding their rules and regulations, but their whole way of life: childbirth, harvesting, feasts, funerals, marriage ceremonies and rituals, land use and others, of which marriage is the most specific.

DHRRA, a regional legal-aid initiative, has
already helped thousands of people
through the three-year naturalization process

In the native peoples’ adat, marriage is a community affair, usually celebrated in the longhouse, in the presence of family members, relatives and friends. Traditionally, marriage certificates were not issued, as the ceremony witnessed by the community was sufficient. This was particularly true in the highlands, where access to government institutions would take time, money and familiarity with the idea of processing papers. A special case is child marriage: under native customary law, marriage of children as young as 12 years old is acceptable. Under civil law this is prohibited, so the custom may lead to an irregular situation.

Children of couples who married according to customary law and who did not register their marriage with the National Registration Department encounter problems applying for an identity card, or “IC”. So do their descendants. Without such a card, these children miss out on a range of rights to health, education and access to work, as well as the ability to marry and open a bank account. There are also other problems. An indigenous man cannot legally transfer his nationality to his child if the mother is a foreign national. A Malaysian woman (indigenous included) cannot transfer her nationality to a child born outside of Malaysia.

In the 1990s, government attempts to provide some form of documentation (but not necessarily citizenship) in Sabah and Sarawak became highly politicized, and eventually failed to benefit indigenous communities. The Prime Minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad, allegedly designed the so-called “Project IC” to provide citizenship to Filipino refugees. By enabling them to vote for his ruling coalition he hoped to win the election in Sabah, which was ruled by an opposing party. The local indigenous community strongly opposed such moves. Their resistance continues, even though the law would benefit indigenous people by ending their stateless or undocumented status. In 2016, the Malaysian Home Ministry created the Special Committee on Citizenship for Sarawak and Sabah, later replaced by a federal-level body, to speed up the process of legitimizing applications for Malaysian citizenship. This has not begun its work as yet.

No documents, no citizenship: a fatal
rule, especially for members of
groups without a tradition of writing

Statelessness in the indigenous communities results directly from a failure to respect and protect the rights of peoples and their traditional practices. It deprives them of their dignity. Young indigenous and stateless people, especially teenagers who migrate to towns in Sarawak, are marginalized as they cannot attend schools or get a formal job. Their problems multiply when they become parents: civil law does not allow them to get married because they lack the necessary documents. As long as this continues, indigenous peoples will automatically be socially excluded and invisible.

This contribution is licensed under the following copyright licence: CC-BY 4.0

The article was published in the Atlas of the Stateless in English, French, and German.