The Malaysian citizenship controversy


Why was it right to give Chinese and Indians citizenship in the 1940s and 1950s (for whatever reason that may have been) and wrong to give others citizenship today?


Raja Petra Kamarudin

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) has finally issued its report regarding the illegal immigrant issue in Sabah and it appears that this controversy is not about to go away. The response to the RCI is varied from why so long to hold a RCI, why hold it only now and not earlier, can the report be trusted, to has the report been edited/doctored so that the truth can he hidden?

From our understanding of things, there are a few (maybe three) different categories of immigrants (we are still talking about Sabah, of course). Those who sneaked into Sabah without any valid papers, those who were legalised with false papers, and those who were legally made citizens in compliance to the proper law and convention.

The tendency in most countries, even in the west, is for people from the poorer countries to sneak into the more prosperous countries, especially if they are neighbouring countries. It is all about earning a better living, which you cannot get in your homeland, or to escape wars, conflicts, persecution, etc.

Many European countries, even the US, face this problem, as did Asian countries like Hong Kong. Even a large majority of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ were ‘economic refugees’, which was the reason why the UNHCR faced difficulties in finding them a home.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in defending the government policy of giving foreigners citizenship, cited first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman as giving two million foreigners citizenship as well.

This is the ironical thing. Those whose ancestors before this were given citizenship are now the same people grumbling about citizenship given to others. This is just like those Malays who made good and are now successful because of the New Economic Policy (NEP) are those who now oppose the NEP and want it abolished because, according to these people, the NEP is being abused, makes the Malays weak and lazy, does not allow meritocracy, etc.

I do not want to debate the issue of fraudulent citizenship (those with false papers) or illegal immigrants (those staying in Malaysia without any legal papers) and so on. I want to talk about the policy of whether foreigners should or should not be given Malaysian citizenship.

This, of course, means your citizenship must be valid and you must have legal papers to live and work in Malaysia. Hence that would mean I oppose syndicates that smuggle in illegal immigrants or syndicates that fabricate papers to make these illegal immigrants ‘legal’ citizens of Malaysia. I only support bona fide Malaysian citizenship, naturalised or otherwise.

As I have written many times before, the British Colonial Government of Malaya began importing workers from India and China into the country around 1850 and officially ended this policy in 1920 when there was no longer any need for foreign labour and when the world economy went into recession.

In 1941, the Japanese invaded Malaya and many Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese (mainly because Japan and China were at war). The Japanese landed in North Malaya and expected to take Singapore in 100 days. They marched down Malaya and took Singapore in just 70 days.

But the British had been preparing for defeat. The war had been going on for two years before the Japanese set their sights on Malaya so the British knew that it was a matter of time before Malaya fell. So the British planned a ‘stay back party’, those who would be left behind when the British retreated and who would go into the jungles to fight a guerrilla war against the Japanese.

The British set up a training centre in Singapore and trained British, Australian, Malay, Chinese, Nepalese, etc., soldiers, police officers and citizens (civil servants and planters) in the art of jungle warfare. Freddie Spencer Chapman’s book ‘The Jungle is Neutral’ is a good read if you want to know more about what happened at that time. Also good reads are ‘The War of the Running Dogs’ and ‘Tanamera’ by Noel Barber, ‘Merdeka’ by Lachman Gunn, ‘Jungle Soldier’ by Brian Moynahan, ‘King Rat’ by James Clavell, and so on.

The plan was, once the Japanese take over Malaya the fight would continue. The Chinese had their Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and the British their Force 136. Force 136 would work with the MPAJA and provide it with training and logistics support, arms and ammunition included.

The British never imagined that the MPAJA, who were mostly (but not all) Chinese Communists and anti-British, were true friends. They were just comrades united against the Japanese and once the Japanese go home then the British would now have to face a new enemy, the Chinese Communists. The British who fought side-by-side with the Chinese would one day have to try to kill these same people.

After the Japanese surrender, the British tried to form the Malayan Union in 1946. But the Malayans, the Malays in particular, opposed this plan and in 1948 the British abandoned the Malayan Union in favour of the Federation of Malaya. The Chinese Communists, however, who by then were called the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and no longer the MPAJA, opposed the Federation.

On 16th June 1948, the CPM launched its insurrection, which ended 12 years later in 1960 but officially ended on 2nd December 1989 with the signing of the Hatyai Treaty. The first three British planters killed on 16th June 1948 (Allison, Christian and Walker) are buried at the Church of St Joseph in Batu Gajah, Perak, while the Emergency was declared two days later on 18th June.

At the beginning of the insurrection there were about 12,000 Communist Terrorists (CTs) operating in the Malayan jungles. By the time of Merdeka in 1957, the numbers were reduced to less than 2,000. Hence by Merdeka the ‘war’ was almost over and the Communists had been defeated.

One way that the British defeated the Communists was to isolate the Chinese from the CTs by relocating them into new villages. These new villages were guarded and fenced up and a dusk to dawn curfew imposed. Hence the Chinese could no longer give the CTs logistic support (although not all ‘support’ was done voluntarily but at the point of the gun).

Next the British gave 60% of the Chinese immigrants, about 1.1 million Chinese, Malayan citizenship. This was so that the Chinese would regard Malaya and not Communist China as their homeland. The British also gave the Chinese TOL land. It was TOL and not freehold so that the Chinese could be placed ‘under threat’ that they would lose their land (which had to be renewed annually) if they supported the CTs instead of supporting the government.

In Umno’s negotiation with the British regarding Merdeka, the British made it clear they would not entertain Merdeka for Malaya unless the issue of the immigrant population was first resolved. The Chinese and Indians would have to be given a place under the new independent Malaya sun and not be sent back to China or India.

Hence, after Merdeka, more Chinese and Indians were given citizenship (the two million that Dr Mahathir is talking about, and which he blames Tunku Abdul Rahman for).

Some Umno people (and non-Umno Malays as well) keep harping on this issue about citizenship being given to the non-Malays in the 1940s and 1950s. That may be true but it was necessary. It was first necessary to prevent Malaya from falling into the hands of the Communists and then necessary to gain Merdeka. Malaya would not have gained Merdeka and, in fact, may have even become a Communist state if not for the British move to give citizenship to the immigrants.

Today, there are no Chinese or Indian immigrants any longer. The Malaysian Chinese and Indians are all Malaysian born. But we do have other immigrants from the neighbouring countries. And now the government needs to decide what to do with them, just like the government had to decide what to do with the Chinese and Indians in the 1940s and 1950s.

It is not a crime to obtain Malaysian citizenship. It becomes a crime only if you obtained it in an illegal manner. Malaysian citizenship can be obtained either by registration or by naturalisation. Either way you have to give up your prior nationality, as Malaysia does not allow dual citizenship.

If you are a foreign national, with no Malaysian origins whatsoever, you can obtain Malaysian citizenship by naturalisation. The only requirements are you must be over the age of 21, have resided in Malaysia for more than 10 years in the 12 years period immediately preceding the date of application, and can demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the Malay language.

Have these requirements been met? If it is ‘yes’ then no more discussion on the matter. If ‘no’ then something is amiss and requires investigation. That is the crux of the matter. But to say that no foreigners can be given Malaysian citizenship is not something that needs to be discussed because for more than 60 years foreigners have been given Malayan and then Malaysian citizenship.

Why was it right to give Chinese and Indians citizenship in the 1940s and 1950s (for whatever reason that may have been) and wrong to give others citizenship today?

The issue of how and why it is being done is another subject matter altogether. In the 1940s it was to stop the Chinese from supporting the Communists. Today, it is to…well, whatever that reason may be (you probably have your own thesis on the matter).

We can argue about the manner (whether it was done legally or not) or even the motive (whether to stop the Chinese from supporting the CTs or to increase Umno’s ‘vote bank’). But as long as it follows the Constitution there is nothing that can be done, unless we change the Constitution to say that no one born outside Malaysia must be allowed Malaysian citizenship.

Is that what we are saying? That may solve one problem but it will trigger many other problems.