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Voice of Children

VoC: Interview with Nanthini Ramalo

1.  Thank you for accepting to meet us for this interview despite your very busy schedule.  First of all we would like to know what DHRRA stands for and the work you do.

DHRRA stands for Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas, Malaysia.

Our mission is to enhance self-awareness & equip living skills among vulnerable communities to become self-reliant and empowered such that they are able to take charge of their lives.  Our activities are varied and all of them are free.  We have numerous development programmes for different groups which are women, children, youth, and an agro and sports development programme.  We also have counselling for psychological well-being, education and career guidance and legal clinics for legal advice.  Finally, we have a My Document programme which is the most relevant for this interview where we help people without documents obtain them.

2.  Yes we are interested in your My Document programme and why there are so many people in Malaysia without documentation.

Lack of documentation is a problem among all ethnic groups in Malaysia but let me start with the Indian community, since most of DHRRA’s clientele are Indians. Statistics indicate that Indians in Malaysia comprise 7.2% or 2 million of the 27. 4 million total populations.[i] For several generations, the Indian community resided in rural areas, especially in the rubber and palm oil estates managed by large plantation companies.

These plantation companies not only provided them with jobs but also took care of their social and cultural needs i.e. housing, school, temples and health care. In 1970, 47% of the Indians were engaged in agriculture of which 74% were in the plantation sector.  However, due to the rapid industrialization program undertaken by the government, many of these estates were developed into industrial, commercial and residential areas. Employment in rubber plantations declined from 163,577 in 1979 to 11,788 in January 2006.

From 1980 to 2000, it is estimated that more than 300,000 Indians were displaced due to the development. The magnitude of Indian displacement from rural plantation areas to urban areas can be seen from the official reports. In 1970, 323,435 Indian (34%) were in the urban areas and 609,194 (65.3%) in rural areas however by 2000, 1.33 million Indians (79.7) were in urban areas while 341,622 (20.3%) continued to live in the rural areas.[ii]

Despite the very large number of people involved in this involuntary stream of migration and with full knowledge of the traumatic impact this displacement will have on these people, sadly little or nothing was done to prepare them for this new environment or to have a holistic transition program in order to equip them with the necessary skills or to resettle them in more sustainable and improved livelihoods. They are now forced to look at alternative ways and means to survive. However, with no proper education or skills, they ended up taking the lower-rung jobs in the cities and having to compete with the migrant workers.

3.  So you are saying with their employment and basic cultural needs taken care of by the plantation companies they didn’t need any formal documentation and only now with this move to the urban areas they are becoming aware of the importance of documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc..

Yes that is right. It is sad that there are many people who are not aware of important basic facts, such as how to register a marriage, birth or death.  It is estimated that there are around 40,000 Indian children in the state of Selangor alone[iii] who do not have their birth certificates. Similarly, based on the number of cases we received at our 10 community centres from 2003 – 2006, we estimated that at least 20,000 Indian women do not have identity documents.[iv]

These figures could be much higher if their children are taken into account. Therefore, they become ‘stateless’ in their own country and as a result they have been denied protection and care as a citizen of the nation state, and thus are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  So you see these people despite being Malaysians by birth, simply due to their lack of knowledge and awareness of the importance of such documents, are now in a state of limbo and because their citizenship status is uncertain they are at the mercy of the authorities who could due to bureaucratic reasons deny them their citizenship right.

4.  You mention the word “stateless”, can you explain what this means?

According to Article 1 of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, “the term “stateless person” means a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.   A stateless person then, is someone who does not enjoy the legal bond of nationality with any state.  In effect, a stateless person is a non-national in every country in the world.

Malaysia has yet to sign the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee.  However, Malaysia has signed the Convention for the Rights of Child (CRC) and Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), albeit with some reservations.

It is interesting to note that according to the Federal Constitution, a child born in the country becomes a citizen by operation of law only if one parent is a citizen or permanently resides in Malaysia at the time of his or her birth or if he or she “is not born a citizen of any country.”  Article 14 of the Federal Constitution, Second Schedule, Part 2, reads:

“Citizenship by operation of law of persons born on or after Malaysia Day,(1)(a) “every person born within the Federation of whose parents one at least is at the time of the birth either a citizen or permanently resident in the Federation,“ (e) “every person born within the Federation who is not born a citizen of any country.”

5.  So even though the Constitution clearly provides citizenship not only to this community but also to any child born in Malaysia under stated conditions, they are denied their constitutional and also their basic human right.

Yes and perhaps by sharing a few cases from different ethnic backgrounds your readers can get a better picture of what is happening on the ground.

Case 1Muniammah & Family
Madam Muniammah is 60 years old. She was born in an estate in Kuala Kubu Bharu. She does not know where her siblings are, as she was married off at the age of 11. Her husband was an alcoholic and did not care for the family. Muniammah has 4 daughters. The husband left when the children were still young. Muniammah tried to register the birth of her children but could not do as she herself did not have any legal documents. Now her daughters are of the age between 30 – 36 years. The worst part, Muniammah’s daughter has children of her own. In this family alone we have 3 generations of stateless people.
Case 2Norashima bt Abdullah
Norhashima was sent to government welfare home with a court order when she was a few months old. She grew up in the government welfare home, which till today has her records. She went to a national school. The welfare home did apply for her birth certificate and her parents details are not in the birth certificate due to that, Norhashima is also classified as stateless. Norhashima is 27 years now, the only identity card that she has now is a green identity card, which recognises her as temporary resident in the country where she was born and grew. This identity card has an expiry date as well.
Case3Tan Ming Siang & Tan Ming Haw 



Tan Ming Siang and Tan Ming Haw are bothers. They both were born in Malaysia. They were born to a Thai mother and Malaysian father. Tan Ming Haw has a birth certificate but in his birth certificate it is stated as ‘Bukan Warganegara’. Tan Ming Siang’s application is still in process. Both their parents were not legally married. Since they are not legally married, both the children are not recognised as citizens of this country. To make the situation worse, both of them were stopped from attending school as they are stateless.

6.  So what is going to happen to people/children in such cases?

It is doubtful if these people will be recognized as citizens of this country. According to the current policy these people will not be recognized as the citizen of the country.

7.  So this means there is a great divide between law and policy.

Yes there is.

8.  Can you tell us a little more about why even today many births go unregistered and thus children are denied access to education and healthcare?

There are several reasons for this.  One of them based on our finding is due to the refusal of some men to own up to their responsibility when the child is born out of wedlock. In other cases the non-registration happened because some parents do not register their child’s birth within the prescribed 14-days mandatory period or after that because they fear of being fined or reprimanded by the National Registration officials. As a result their children grew up without proper identification documents.

An adult without proper documents can’t secure a proper job or get married legally. If he or she does get married without their marriage certificate and have children, chances are that their children’s birth will not be registered. As a result the children are brought up in an environment that seriously compromises their development because they are not offered access to formal education, the opportunity to be safeguarded by the national health care system, the opportunity to work in safe and just positions (not leading to labour exploitation), and the opportunity to legally travel out of their residential area. Very often due to this lack of opportunity they become targets and fall victim to criminal gangs or enforcement officers such as the police and RELA and thus become trapped in a vicious cycle of neglect, violence, poverty, exploitation and above all statelessness.

Even if they (children or their parents) have the awareness of the importance of documentation and attempt to gain them because they are illiterate or lack education, they are unable to converse fluently in Bahasa Malaysia. As a result, they are unable to communicate effectively with government officials and face difficulty in understanding their bureaucratic procedures and requirements. Therefore, they are often subject to rude treatment by these officials which causes them to be demoralized and give up their efforts to complete their application.

Generally DHRRA Malaysia has experienced lack of documentation due to the following reasons:

  • Lack of knowledge on the importance of legal documents
  • Ignorance
  • Administrative or procedural problems
  • Financial problem
  • Inter – religion marriage
  • Marriage to foreign spouse (no legal marriage)
  • No proof of birth
  • Illegal Adoption
  • Child abandoned without proper documents
  • Child born out of wedlock

9.  It is very challenging work indeed and requires work on many fronts to tackle this problem.  So could you tell us more on what DHRRA is doing on different fronts about this issue?

DHRRA Malaysia is working on mapping and identifying the stateless or undocumented people in Malaysia. Among our efforts are organising workshops in order to train the community leaders, as they are much closer to the community and they will be able to identify the stateless people. DHRRA Malaysia has been very vocal in highlighting this issue in every available avenue. We were also invited to contribute towards 10th Malaysia Plan by the Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister’s Department. During these sessions we highlighted the issue of the stateless people and how these people will benefit or should be taken into account in 10th Malaysia Plan.

We have been involved in this task since 2003. DHRRA Malaysia and other NGOs are trying to minimize the problem by raising awareness among the community of the importance of applying for birth certificates early and assisting undocumented people to apply for their legal documents. DHRRA Malaysia has also established good rapport with the National Registration Department (NRD) wherein NRD has been very cooperative in resolving the undocumented issues. Since 2003, DHRRA has handled a total of 7085 cases. 77% of these cases has been resolved; 2,669 cases related to birth certificate, 861 cases related to identity card, 1,028 cases related to marriage certificate, 813 cases on citizenship and 54 cases related entry permit.

10. Could you tell us a little more about your advocacy work with the government to bring about legal and policy change?

We have very good rapport with the NRD.  We worked with them to understand the system and then worked very closely with them to get the necessary documentation done.  As a result we got to be known as the organization that is working on the statelessness issue and would get invited to the NRD meetings as well as the Economic Planning Unit (EPU).  You see prior to 2003 no one knew or talked about the issue of documentation or statelessness.  It became a popular issue during the 2008 General Elections (GE).

We have been working on this issue since 2003 and for us this issue was also new when we first started.  We handled one case after which more cases started coming in and we saw the enormity of the issue at hand.  Initially when we approached the authorities especially NRD, they were not very supportive saying this is a small matter or that it is a failure on the part of one officer and can be fixed.

When this issue blew up during the 2008 GE DHRRA was under ERA Consumer.  What happened was people, especially the politicians were giving out all kinds of uncorroborated numbers regarding the extent of the problem.  We were the ones who had some kind of numbers as we have mentioned earlier and based on our work we got invited to the PM’s Department.  Based on the recommendations we received a grant that helped move our work forward.

One of the things we managed was that with our intervention and other agencies we got the green ID restarted.  This ID is for temporary residence and government suddenly froze this ID in 2008.  Even though it is a still a big problem, at least it is issued and is renewable every 5 years.  Those on this ID can never get citizenship and the majority of cases in this category are those from government homes.

With the grant from the government gave us in 2011, 2012 and 2013 we were able to help many people.  This year so far there is no indication of us receiving the grant but we are continuing with the work, however, at a much smaller scale.

11.  You have a book published in Tamil called Unmayin Urasal which gives all the procedural details in getting documentation.  You are also planning to publish this book in English.  Do you know the approximate date this book will be available to the public?

We have had a setback with the funding for this publication but we are hopeful to sort the funding out and come out with the English edition sometime this year.

12.  You are also working on a book that will consist of 100 cases that you have worked on.  When is the approximate date for the publication of this book?

Yes again we are searching for funding for this publication.  These cases will walk people through the day to day challenges faced in the bureaucratic corridors by people applying for documentation.  We hope to have this publication out sometime this year also.

13.  If people are interested to get involved with DHRRA how can they get in touch with you?

You can have a look at our website http://dhrramalaysia.org.my/ and Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/DHRRA to know about our various activities and programmes.  Once you decide which programme you want to get involved in contact us and we will connect you with the programme of your interest.

[i] Data from Budget 2014: Prime Minister’s Speech, The Star, Oct 25, 2013.

[ii] Population and Housing Census Reports of 1970, 1980, 1991(2000). Department of Statistics, Malaysia quoted in “The Case of Low Income Malaysian Indians”, Centre for Public Policy Studies. Retrieved from http://www.cpps.org.my/

[iii] “Spot Light: Hope for the ‘stateless’ at last.” New Strait Times, Jan 27, 2008.

[iv] “20,000 Indian women without IC, marriage certs.” New Strait Times, March 20, 2005.


by Joti Kohli

Voice of Children


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