A stateless man’s fight to belong
9 Dec 2021
By Ilona Andrew
It may have not crossed the mind of many about how utterly fortunate one is to be able to call themselves a citizen to a state or country, but for some – known as the stateless – it is all they could ever dream of.
Decades have passed, and the issue of statelessness in Malaysia, particularly Sabah, have yet to see any disentanglement and many have lived and died as a stateless.
But for Wong Kueng Hui who is a youth with an acute sense of justice, there is no reason in his mind why change isn’t possible.
Wong, 26, was born to a Malaysian father and Indonesian mother, it was his father’s second marriage. And he has lived in Keningau his entire life.
At a vulnerable age of nine, his dear father passed away and his mother followed suit about six years later. Since then, he has lived with an adoptive family from his mother’s side.
It was evidenced that his birth occurred in the Keningau Hospital, but at the age of 12, his application for a MyKad was rejected by the National Registration Department (NRD).
The reason being was that he failed to produce his parents’ marriage certificate albeit having bringing along his birth certificate, his father’s death certificate, and letters of oaths from his step-siblings.
Unbeknownst to him for how cruel the world would treat him in the future for not having an identity document, Wong decided to give up his right of getting a citizenship and just went on with his stateless life.
THE TWISTS AND TURNS
Unlike other students, Wong had to drop out of school at the age of 15 since he could not sit for his PMR (Lower Secondary Assessment) without a MyKad.
His school was kind to allow him continue his studies, on condition that he addresses his citizenship issue to the Education Department.
However, knowing how troublesome and inconvenient it would be, he decided to give up education. By the age of 16, he had started working several odd jobs to keep up with life.
“In Keningau, it is easy for a minor to get a part-time job but not until you turn 18 where employers ask for your MyKad before they take you in.
“Needless to say, I had to settle with whatever that can work for me in order to make ends meet, including selling food in front of a cybercafé and flipping burgers, as well as working at a car wash and an express bus station.
“Being a stateless, an employer can manipulate and take advantage of you and you would not be able to fight back, just like what happened to me,” he said when contacted by Nabalu News, recently.
Despite all those odd jobs, Wong found a brief career at a hotel in the city centre where there was no such thing as discrimination between the locals and the stateless. It made him realise that there is hope for him despite all the prejudices he had faced.
“However, I had to go back to Keningau to care for my adoptive parents. So I took up a DJ (disco jockey) job at a night club there.
“On the other hand, my safety as someone with no identity document was at stake since the night club gets raided on a regular basis, so I decided to resign before I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2017,” he stated.
LIVING AN UNCERTAIN STATELESS LIFE
Wong’s life as a stateless represents the majority of stateless individuals in Sabah – they live in fear and waking up everyday not knowing what untoward events are ahead of them.
Individuals with no identification document are more often than not treated very biasedly as the stigma that revolves around the locals is that people with no identity documents equal to criminals.
Wong said the saddest thing that he has to deal with most of the time is the random checks by cops even when he is just walking in the street.
“I know some of the people from my circle, maybe one or two of them, always give me the side-eye, calling me an immigrant. But to me, it doesn’t really bother me.
“The bigger thing that I had to deal with is the random checks by police. If you fail to show your MyKad, they will threaten to bring you to the police station and that happened to me all the time.
“If they can’t find anything wrong with me, they will do all they can in their power to find one on me which includes threatening to get me on urine tests for drugs,” he explained.
According to Wong, there were also incidents where police personnel bullied him for his money but knowing that this is unlawful, Wong would always fight back. After all, he is still a human with human rights.
Despite all of these shortcomings, he admitted that he does not have a slight idea, nor would he want to imagine, what his life would be like if he were not a stateless person.
“If I weren’t a stateless person and had a MyKad, I would probably take my citizenship for granted and not appreciate my privilege, like some people. Perhaps I would not know how hard it is living as a stateless person and I would not feel grateful.
“Being a stateless person teaches me a lot of things. It teaches me the meaning of life. At the same time, for someone who is devoted to punk rock music and its ideology like me, being stateless gives me a purpose to fight,” he explained.
Wong mentioned the spirit of punk rock music, a kind of music that is usually ‘noisy with hard-edged melodies and singing that often shouts political and anti-establishment lyrics’ is also what inspired him to fight his battle.
IN PURSUIT OF IDENTITY
At one point, Wong decided that there must be something that can right the moral wrongs so he started seeing relevant authorities in the state capital, and then the Federal NRD and Home Ministry in Putrajaya, to address his issue.
He also heard from some people in his hometown that there were those fighting the same battle as his and managed to obtain their citizenship when they approached the federal authorities.
He was also moved to stand for his rights after getting advice and support from friends and family.
“But it was not an easy journey as I had to constantly follow up with these authorities. I also went to both the Philippines and Indonesian embassies check for any records of my mother in the countries’ passport database and there were none, which proves that my mother was neither a citizen of these two countries.
“I was then told that my application under the Federal Constitution’s Article 15A to be recognised as a Malaysian was in progress and was asked to go back to Sabah, but I decided to stay in KL and change my address.
“I was not aware that my application was disapproved, not until I collected the letter from the Home Ministry. The ministry claimed that they have sent the rejection letter to my home address but I never received it.
“When I found out about it, I decided to file a lawsuit through a judicial review in 2019 to seek court order for me to be recognised as a Malaysian citizen,” he explained.
A DREAM FULFILLED BUT SNATCHED AWAY
On Oct 21, 2019, High Court had recognised Wong as a stateless and declared that he is a Malaysian citizen based on the Federal Constitution’s Second Schedule’s Part II’s Section 1(e) — a provision where those born within Malaysia and are not born a citizen of any other country are entitled under the law to Malaysian citizenship.
It was a dream come true for Wong as he finally found a sense of belonging, but this did not last long as the court’s decision was appealed by the Malaysian government.
The Malaysian government argued that he had to follow his mother’s nationality as there were no prove or records showing his parents married. In other words, it was implied that Wong is an illegitimate child.
It was also argued in the Court of Appeal that Wong has not done enough to prove his mother’s nationality despite his efforts to seek for proof from the two embassies.
Wong’s lawyer Haijan Omar fought back by stating that Wong has done all that he could to find out about his mother’s backgrounds and origins, and that there is no identification record of him in any other countries.
As the fight continues, he said he is optimistic that all will turn well for him. The Court of Appeal has fixed Jan 19 next year for the delivery of the decision.
MANY MORE ARE FIGHTING THE SAME BATTLE
Wong’s experience of going to and fro the High Court and meeting with other stateless individuals made him realise that his battle is not a solitary fight.
Some have been in an ongoing fight for over 10 years, while some fought for a while and then granted a citizenship. Most of them are young stateless persons below the age of 21.
But what’s certain is that, Wong is known to be the first person aged above 21 years old and the only one from Sabah to have won such a case.
“I hope my journey can inspire many other stateless persons out there who are still hiding in their shadows. My message to them is, please step out and stop staying in your comfort zone.
“We are living in a modern world. We have social media, a platform where we can make a noise and reach out for help. I believe there are many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) out there that emphatise our predicament and they are willing to help us without asking anything in return.
“If there are those who don’t know where to start or what to do, they can reach me. The most important thing is that they take a step to move forward… Being stateless is not a crime, so don’t be afraid.”
Wong also expressed hope that many more law firms in Sabah would start to take in cases involving stateless issues because according to him, the awareness in Sabah is still seemingly low.
“Give pressure to the government (on this issue) because federal constitutions apply to all states in Malaysia, nothing is impossible,” he asserted.
WORDS FOR THE GOVERNMENT
Wong understands that simply granting a citizenship will not be an easy approach to eradicate statelessness in Malaysia but he opined that the least the government can do is to recognise this group.
“Stateless people, too, contribute to the Malaysian economy just like everybody else. They should be given education and employment opportunities because many of them are very bright and talented but do not have the platform to polish their skills.
“Some of them are being taken for granted by employers knowing that their hands are tied, while some stateless people miss their chances to generate income because companies refuse to take them in, in fear that action will be taken.
“Therefore, I beg the government to at least recognise this group and give them a proper identification document – at least MyPR, and not ones like IMM13, Kad Burung-Burung and Census Card,” he said.
Right now, Wong is advocating for the rights of stateless people by sharing his journey as a panelist in virtual talks or webinars.
While many bodies in the Peninsula project great concerns on this issue, Wong said he realised that Sabah is not making enough noise as of now since awareness is still low.
“Some stateless people want to share their stories to the public, but they lack the platform and even legal advice in Sabah.
“Not much can be done when the people are still not well-informed about this issue. Some still cannot differentiate stateless, illegal immigrants and undocumented.
“There’s no point if the government is already aware about this issue and the society isn’t, so this is where I came in – I try to raise as much awareness as I could.”