Family Frontiers joins the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, committing to fight against violence towards women in Malaysia.
It drives us to intensify our efforts in raising awareness, fostering empathetic conversations and taking tangible steps to eradicate gender-based violence.
We at Family Frontiers, would like to shed light on the invisible: the women and children in Malaysian binational families.
We welcome the Madani (caring and compassionate) government’s recent visa liberalisation plan, introducing a 30-day multiple entry visa and a long-term social visit pass for international students.
However, there is a noticeable omission regarding the specific needs of vulnerable women and children in Malaysian binational families. These individuals, despite living permanently and having established families in Malaysia, remain absent from this new policy framework.
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Women and children in Malaysian binational families are often overlooked, despite an estimated average of 164,000 visas being issued annually by the Immigration Department to non-citizen spouses of Malaysians. Despite living here for many years, raising children and establishing permanent homes, their legal status remains uncertain and dependent on their Malaysian spouses.
These restrictions disproportionately affect women in binational marriages.
Family Frontiers has identified four critical areas that require immediate attention and decisive action from the Madani government.
Limitations to employment
Non-citizen spouses constitute a substantial and unrecognised latent workforce of professionals and skilled individuals who can contribute to productivity and brain influx in Malaysia.
However, their right to employment is heavily restricted. The long-term social visit pass issued to these non-citizen spouses includes a statement of prohibition from employment on the visa, presenting substantial challenges in finding work.
Although it is possible to obtain a work endorsement, it requires an initial job offer, but the prohibition on their pass hinders them from receiving such job offers in the first place.
Furthermore, work endorsement is restricted to the same state where the pass is applied. If they find employment in a different state, they face a lengthy and cumbersome process to transfer their pass file to the state of their employment. This process can take anywhere from three to six months, a duration during which most employers are unwilling to wait.
This situation disproportionately affects women in Malaysian binational marriages and is not in the best interest of their Malaysian children. Non-citizen wives may find themselves trapped in abusive relationships due to a lack of financial independence.
On the other hand, Malaysian women married to non-citizen husbands are frequently forced into the role of sole breadwinner because of their husbands’ challenges in securing employment.
Suraya (name changed to protect privacy), for example, has been married for nine years to a Yemeni national who has lived in Malaysia for 15 years since his student days. Despite his engineering qualification from a Malaysian public university, his lack of permanent residence (PR) has hindered him from securing a job in his field, creating uncertainty and anxiety in their marital life.
Despite their efforts to comply with visa regulations and integrate into Malaysian culture, their journey to obtain PR has been marked by shifting requirements and lengthy waits.
Faced with limited career prospects, Suraya’s husband pursued a scholarship in Indonesia, highlighting a missed opportunity for Malaysia and adding emotional strain to Suraya’s life as she navigates the distance from her spouse.
Restricted access to PR
Malaysian PR, also known as the entry permit, allows non-citizens to live in Malaysia indefinitely.
Unfortunately, the lack of transparency, long waiting times and low approval rates for PR applications leave many non-citizen spouses in unstable situations, keeps non-citizen spouses fully dependent on their Malaysian spouses for years and decades without providing women in binational national marriages the autonomy to plan for their future and that of their families.
Gulzhan, a non-citizen woman married to a Malaysian man for 14 years, had applied for PR in Malaysia.
Despite having qualifications in Islamic finance, Gulzhan was unable to leverage her expertise due to an undisclosed regulation that financial institutions need to obtain approval from Bank Negara before employing foreigners. Her lack of PR hinders her pursuit of a career in the finance sector.
Yusuf, her husband, fears that if anything unfortunate were to happen to him, his wife would not have the legal status nor the financial autonomy to support her Malaysian children on her own, without PR.
Non-citizen wives of Malaysians are eligible to apply for PR after living in Malaysia for five years on the long-term social visit pass.
However, only a limited number of applicants are granted PR. A 2022 survey by Family Frontiers with 65 respondents who applied for PR, revealed that none of the participants had their PR applications approved; all applications were still pending, with 28% waiting for more than four years and 30.2% of the respondents kept waiting for PR approval for over six years.
The government plans to amend Article 26(2) related to Article 15(1), enabling the government to revoke Malaysian citizenship if the marriage dissolves within two years of obtaining citizenship, in what at the outside seems an effort to curb ‘marriages of convenience’.
However, non-citizen spouses of Malaysians face significant barriers in obtaining citizenship under Article 15(1) as the criteria for citizenship has deviated from the mandated criteria in the Federal Constitution – to be eligible upon two years of living in Malaysia after marriage and with the intention to live permanently has instead been replaced by two years after obtaining Malaysian PR, which if obtained, comes years and even decades after marriage; this in turn, denies non-citizen spouses the pathway to citizenship. Without the ability to obtain PR, the pathway to citizenship remains unattainable.
While it is important to ensure the institution of marriage is not abused to obtain citizenship, the proposed amendment must ensure that once citizenship is granted, it cannot be revoked solely due to marriage dissolution that takes place years later.
It is equally crucial to protect spouses who have acquired Malaysian citizenship through marriage from vulnerability and potential statelessness.
Malaysia acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) in 1995. And with Malaysia coming for review in the forthcoming months, the government must follow the principle of equality and non-discrimination in providing safeguards and protection to women in binational marriages.
We urge the government to:
- Proceed immediately with the constitutional amendment to grant children born abroad to Malaysian mothers the automatic right to Malaysian citizenship and tp decouple and re-evaluate the other proposed amendments in light of the potentially severe and harmful implications on the welfare and protection of other vulnerable
- Remove the statement of prohibition on employment on the long-term social visit pass and allow non-citizen spouses to work in all sectors, including those requiring professional licences, as this could substantially reverse the brain drain
- Establish a streamlined PR process, including a reasonable timeframe and justification for rejection. Accord PR after five years on the long-term social visit pass, irrespective of nationality, qualifications, income or children, and use existing documentation submitted during the application and extension of the long-term social visit pass
- Grant separated, divorced and widowed non-citizen spouses the right to reside and work in Malaysia, regardless of nationality, gender, income and custody status in the best interest of the Malaysian children and the wellbeing of the family
In conclusion, closing the identified gaps not only aligns with the government’s commitment to the sustainable development goals of leaving no one behind but also serves as a critical step in fostering a fair and supportive environment for Malaysian binational families.
This, in turn, directly contributes to the prevention of gender-based violence by ensuring the protection and empowerment of non-citizen spouses, particularly women, who may otherwise face heightened vulnerability.
It is imperative that we prioritise comprehensive solutions to prevent such issues and create a society where every individual, regardless of citizenship status, can live free from fear and discrimination. – Family Frontiers