The stateless plight of Rohana Abdullah, who was abandoned by her parents at the age of two months, has gained wide attention and concern from Malaysians and Indonesians.
Her Indonesian mother returned to her home country after having stopped work as a kindergarten cleaner while her Malaysian father disappeared without a trace, leaving her with no legal documents – which brought about her present stateless status.
Many children born in Malaysia are rendered stateless if they were born to a Malaysian father and a non-Malaysian mother who were not officially married or did not register their marriage.
The additional dimension to Rohana’s case that tugs at the heartstrings of many Malaysians and others is that she was adopted and single-handedly brought up by a Chinese woman, Chee Hoi Lan, who worked as a teacher at the same kindergarten as her biological mother.
In a wider context, where the social fabric is frayed by years of ethno-religious politics, suspicion and fear, the act of the 83-year-old single woman who raised Rohana, now 22, in keeping with her Islamic tradition, was generally gazed in awe. Their different ethnicities and faiths were no obstacles to the human bond that has developed, especially during Rohana’s formative years.
This is precious as it suggests that compassion and empathy, as well as the personal sacrifices of the adoptive mother are crucial as they can make a difference to a child who would have had to face greater odds in her life as an ‘orphan’, apart from the challenges of being a stateless person. Even then, Rohana had to eventually drop out of school because she did not have personal identification documents.
After caring for Rohana all these years, Chee, like any other dedicated guardian, understandably looks forward to the day when Rohana would be able to marry, have a career and be happy.
Over the years, Rohana and Chee have come to learn that statelessness means not having access to better education, a fulfilling career, affordable healthcare, security and happiness.
Rohana applied for citizenship in 2016 but has not yet received an official response.
As pointed out by former women, family and community deputy minister Hannah Yeoh, in response to the sentiments expressed by Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who were moved by Rohana’s problem, Rohana’s plight is not a remote case.
To be sure, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohanas in various situations in the country, most of whom, unfortunately, do not get highlighted in the media. And they are all waiting eagerly to be registered as Malaysians.
Hence, in keeping with the humanitarian spirit displayed by Chee, the Malaysian government ought to address the urgent issue of statelessness among people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds whose cases have faced delays, if not neglect, by officialdom.
Each week, month or year of delay counts for the stateless, who are confronted by challenges on various fronts.
However, an attempt to resolve this problem of statelessness would fail or be inadequate if it was done in a piecemeal manner or on a case-by-case basis, as it really requires a review of citizenship policies and laws.
Moreover, tackling Rohana’s problem as well as other similar cases in a comprehensive way that befits a humanitarian cause would put paid to any suspicion, if not allegation, that the government’s approach to statelessness has a hint of racial or religious prejudice.
Let Chee’s humanity inform our response to statelessness. – The Malaysian Insight