Malaysia’s Court of Appeal on Friday overturned a landmark ruling that had enabled mothers with foreign spouses to automatically pass on their nationality to children born overseas.
A Malaysian woman with a foreign spouse who gives birth abroad cannot automatically pass on her nationality. Similar restrictions do not apply to Malaysian men, who enjoy a straight path to citizenship for their offspring.
A group of Malaysian mothers had challenged what it said were discriminatory citizenship rules, arguing they breached constitutional equality guarantees, and won before the High Court last September.
But the Southeast Asian country’s government appealed the verdict, arguing that the rules were in line with the constitution.
A three-judge panel, voting 2-1 on Friday, overturned the High Court’s ruling.
“The government’s appeal is allowed. The High Court decision is set aside,” said judge Kamaludin Mohamad Said.
He added that the High Court “cannot on its own whim and fancy rewrite constitution as it would lead to absurdity”.
The mothers who filed the case, and activists – many of them in tears, said they were disappointed with the decision.
Outside the court, Lavinder Kaur, 43, cried aloud as she clutched her 19-year-old daughter’s hand.
“My daughter is without any Malaysian documents. She cannot enrol in a school,” she told reporters. “Why discriminate against the women?”
Gurdial Singh, a lawyer for the mothers, told AFP they would file an appeal before the Federal Court — the country’s highest tribunal.
Suri Kempe, president of NGO Family Frontiers which helped bring the case to court, described the latest ruling as a “setback” but said they would fight on.
Socially conservative Malaysia is among only a handful of countries worldwide with such rules, with campaigners long complaining they were discriminatory.
If affected mothers bring their children back to Malaysia, the youngsters faced difficulty accessing public services such as free education and healthcare.
Campaigners said the law had sometimes left women trapped in abusive relationships.
Mothers can apply for their overseas-born children to be granted citizenship but authorities have rarely agreed.
According to Family Frontiers, the home ministry received over 4,000 applications between 2013 and 2018, but only approved 142.