“Why Do You Want To Be A Malaysian Citizen?”

In conjunction with #WhyMalaysia week, Tiara Shafiq shares with us about what it takes to be Malaysian, according to the system.

The day after I flew back up from Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for the third time in
about six months, I was sitting in one of the rooms at KDN (Ministry of Home Affairs), where an interviewer two years my senior asked: “Why do you want to be a Malaysian citizen?”

To be honest I don’t know anymore.

I was born in 1985 in Johor Bahru, but due to my parents being
foreigners at the time (my dad being on a work permit) I was born a
foreigner too. It wasn’t until just before I entered primary school
that our whole family received permanent residency—a process that
involved internal mishaps and anxious moments.

I do not remember life before permanent residency, but I do remember
how much of a pain it was to be as a Permanent Resident (PR), a seemingly unknown status within Malaysia, one where I had to keep explaining my right to exist over and over again. What made it even worse was that I was a Bangladeshi, a supposedly “dirty illegal”; never mind that my parents were educated middle-class and that my father was brought in as a civil engineer.

Immigrant workers from Bangladesh awaiting their ride from the Sepang airport. | Credit: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Immigrant workers from Bangladesh awaiting their ride from the Sepang airport. | Credit: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

School was a torture cell for me. This was supposedly one of the best
schools in the state and yet they treated me as inhumane garbage. No
child should ever have to be told by their teachers to “go back to
your country”. No child should ever have to explain the news reports
that claimed that Bangladeshis were robbing houses and stealing women
(only to be told upon protest that I should “grow thicker skin”). I
had teachers tell my classmates, in front of my face, “don’t let the
Bangla girl do better than you”. Even my art skills came under
scrutiny, with teachers mocking me during exams saying “my six-year-old
could do better”. The students copied the teachers in their mockery of
me. It didn’t matter that I won tons of awards every year, that I was
the best English language student the whole time I was there—their
perception of my race invalidated any good thing I tried to do or achieved.

No one stood up for me. Instead, when I attempted suicide in the
prayer room at age 11, the only other person there said “God will send
you to hell”. I begged my parents to send me elsewhere, even overseas,
but a combination of their overprotective paranoia plus the fact that
as a PR I am meant to be in a government-run school (ironic, given the
fact that my school kept trying to expel me every other year claiming
I didn’t have a “student visa”) had me staying in the local school
system for 11 years. Not that secondary school was much better—a
little less overt in their racism, perhaps, but you notice it when the
Malay prefects and the non-Malay prefects hold separate meetings on
why the other group should not field a candidate for Head Prefect, or
when you’re sitting in assembly and one of the admins suddenly
announces that no permanent residents will be accepted as prefects—
when everyone knows you’re the only permanent resident there anyway.

The last day of SPM was like a release from jail.

Leaving school meant leaving the worst of the overt racism, but the
anti-Bangla sentiment still manifests one way or another. Every
discussion about race in Malaysia talks about Malays, Chinese, Indians
- the rest of us don’t exist. Every so often a radio host will pipe up
again about “those Banglas stealing our women”. I find journal
articles about how Bangladeshi workers, those with less privileges than
my parents, are brought to Malaysia on the promise of “Islamic
brotherhood” – only to find that no such brotherhood actually exists.

Bangladeshi immigrant factory workers | Credit: www.thepostman.wordpress.com
Bangladeshi immigrant workers at the accomodation provided by the factory | Credit: www.thepostman.wordpress.com

And then there are the PR-related issues. How, because of some random
Member of Parliament going on about the red Identity Cards not actually being red, all PRs had to change ICs—
at our expense. The wait for a return pass on our passport, which was later revealed to actually be for Indonesians
only. One of my cousins came to Malaysia on a Malaysia My Second Home
permit, a 5-year temporary visa, and he had more rights than we did. I
was heavily into alternative education and youth empowerment then, and
spent quite a few years campaigning for the rights of Malaysian youth;
however, since I was in a no man’s land politically speaking, hardly
anyone with power would have paid any attention to me.

After what seemed like forever—12 years, the minimum waiting time,
plus any time spent overseas; we tacked on an extra year just in case
—we were finally eligible to apply for citizenship. This took two
attempts; the first was rejected after five years of waiting due to
ridiculous reasons—my dad’s language essay was a few words too
short, and they claimed I wasn’t a permanent resident in the first
place. Absolutely stupid! My parents spent over 35 years in the
country, I was born and raised here, and you are going to reject us
based on your incompetence and biases?

I wasn’t willing to go for a second attempt. I had moved to Australia
at this point, where the migration process is still a pain and subtle
racism does exist, but where I’m also more openly accepted and where
my Bangladeshi heritage isn’t a big problem. Politicians and ministers
took my concerns seriously, I was recognised and accepted as a
Queenslander, and for most purposes I felt more welcomed in Australia
than I ever did in Malaysia. If it weren’t for my parents I wouldn’t
have tried going for citizenship again…but what the hell.

Thankfully our application was accepted this time—in less than a
year even—but it’s not a straightforward process. Instead I find
myself having to fly up and down from Brisbane to KL every few months
for yet another step in this long, drawn-out malarkey. The questions
asked of me were inane enough (“Write 150 words on the importance of
National Day!”) but the most galling part involved sitting in the
interview room, being asked what my most important responsibility and
contribution was as a new citizen…only to be told by the
interviewers that the right answer is to vote for the ruling party,
because they were the ones who gave me the “gift” of permanent
residency.

FUCK THAT.
The permanent residency and citizenship is NOT a “gift”, it’s a RIGHT.
One that was denied to me because YOUR SYSTEMS are incompetent,
racist, broken.
I spent my ENTIRE LIFE representing Malaysia overseas, immersed in
Malaysian culture as the only one I knew, living as a Malaysian, told
to throw away all Bangladeshi-ness from myself, forced to assimilate -
and you tell me this is a GIFT?
Your ruling party openly stated that my people were only here as
troublemakers and made laws that severely disadvantaged us, and you
think it’s my duty to vote for them?
I probably have more right to this country than you, lady. Don’t tell
me what to do.

I’m still waiting. They say I should get my final papers by the end of
this year. My father already got his—that coveted blue IC, the red
passport that makes for far easier travel anywhere (and really the
main reason we’re bothering with this application).
This article may put my application in a precarious spot, in a country
where pasting a picture of an upside down flag on your blog is
suspicious…
…but I’ve stopped caring.

Why Malaysia?
Why a country that did not welcome me the many years I tried to
embrace it and make it mine?
Why Malaysia, indeed.

Tiara the Merch Girl is a performance artist, creative producer, and Creatrix of Awesome who escaped the ghost town of Ulu Tiram for Brisbane, Australia. She spends her time getting up to creative sexytimes, rabble-rousing about politics and culture on her blog, and signing up for anything that looks interesting. Currently she is working on The San Fran Plan, spending a few months in San Francisco in mid-2011 to further her performance skills and explore gender, sexuality, and relationships from the perspective of a female queer migrant minority.

Recommended Reads:

Chin Peng: The Heart of the Dispute
Love your Police more
My Name is Singh
Dilemmas of a Malaysian Student

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interdisciplinary iconoclast and creatrix of awesome.

Posted on 17 March 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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29 Responses to “Why Do You Want To Be A Malaysian Citizen?”

  1. NAH

    I don't agree with you Asdar, as your might be an isolated case. I am also a Pakistani spouse here in Malaysia living with my Malaysian wife for the last 10years and my son who is now in secondary school,a very prestigious one in Penang, is continuously being discriminated, harassed and ridiculed on the basis of his race. Even when he was in junior school & was too young to understand this hatred and racial discrimination meted out to him, he would come home crying almost every other day.Likewise I had complained to the headmaster,concerned teacher about this behaviour but they denied & blamed my son instead for being disruptive & too inquisitive (as he used to ask many questions).
    Now, my son has grown up a bit wiser and as Tiara rightly mentioned, has grown a bit of thick skin about such racial remarks from his peers and even teachers sometimes in a sarcastic tone. I have no solution in my mind how to comfort my son in order to tackle this xenophobia and the racial mindset of people around us in this country!
    I fully endorse the views expressed by Tiara as she has spoken our hearts.

  2. Asdar Ali

    I have read the article I understand every single word and all the pain she felt all her life in Malaysia but my view is a bit different I am a Pakistani with Malaysian pr I got my pr after staying 17 years straight in Malaysia married a malay girl my sweetheart wife in 2002 now married for 11 years and have 5 lovely kids …. 2 years ago when my eldest son was in 3rd grade a small incident happened my son was not catching up in class the teacher was a bit angry about it she tried to help my son but he was not paying attention so out of her anger she uttered racist remarks to my son when my son came back home he mentioned this to my wife and my wife told it to me … next morning without telling my wife I went to school sent my son until his class I sat on the back bench and waited for the teacher to arrive in class after a while she came inside saw me sitting on the back bench shocked and confused she came to me and asked who am I … so I told her I am the father of the boy you passed racist remarks yesterday … and I m not going to move from here until I get an explaination … she really freaked out …. and started apologizing to me … I looked at her and said I respect you as a teacher as in Pakistani culture we are taught that our teachers are our spiritual parents therefore I am not going to lose my temperament on her my presence here is just to remind you that our kids do tell us what happen to them in class so better be careful next time …. I rise from the bench and walked away after that my 2 more kids also went to same school and the teacher never uttered any racist remarks to them until today I asked my kids a number of time but they said all is ok so the moral of the story is be strong parents warn them before they cross their limits prevention is better than cure

  3. Anybody can apply for asylum as long as the criteria is met. People who are granted asylum also enjoy many benefits including work authorization and eligibility for a green card.

  4. Amanda

    Hi Tiara. I feel you, sister. I really feel you. My father is Indonesian born. My mother is American. I was born in America. Because my mother is 'white' I had a much easier time in school compared to you — right up to the point when Bush's war on terror began. After that, I had school mates pointing at me and shouting 'Bush is your uncle! Your family is killing Iraqis'.

    Once, I walked out of school after the principal made a speech during assembly about foreign students messing up the school system. 'Go back to where you came from,' she said. It was mainly aimed at the poor children of Indonesian laborers but I felt it too. I walked out the front gate, nobody stopped me. My parents met the principal and talked me into going back. I was one of the coveted 'pelajar cemerlang' who would raise the school statistics. Of course the principal wanted me there. My academic performance nullified the extra effort in paperwork. I didn't have a proper citizenship, just like the children of the Indonesian laborers. But I could stay because I got good grades. I stayed because it was my SPM year even though I felt sick doing so.

    Our family has lived here for 21 years. My father is a citizen because his family has been here since before Merdeka. My mother still has not receiver her PR status despite going through the interview twice. I only got Malaysian citizenship when I was 20 years old after a long and tiring battle with JPN.

    Why Malaysia? My family's life is built here. We're struggling middle-class. My father is old. This is our home. Even if some people point to us and shout racist remarks, this is our home.

  5. Ossian

    A word to the haters out there, racism is blight on the landscape of humanity. It doesn't matter where it occurs or to whom it is directed, it is a vile thing. It is the single largest obstacle to human progress. It is an utterly negative thing which does not bring anything to enrich anyone's life. Stop it and stop it now.
    As for you Bill Abong, Tiara's little rant is perfectly justified, what's your problem with it? It isn't a racist dialogue; it's about racism and about being subject to it you fool. We're all entitled to complain about cultural issues which affect us negatively. Complaining about institutional and cultural racism is not in any way, shape or form a racist act itself, it is a basic right.
    Bill, think before you open your mouth.

  6. Bill Abong

    anti=-racism: go fuck yourself you racist Indonesian-hating bastard. Fucking hypocrite… Can't even write English properly, you write it just like a M….

  7. anti_racism

    Actually the real Malays is not so typical… the typical is the generations of un-educated indon who are holding blue IC & showing themself Malay… i don't know how they manage to change the ethnic in the IC as Malay??? the un-educated indon's generation is the real fucker not Malays…

  8. ling

    hi i support you, even i am malaysian chinese here, i dont feel comfortable to live there, a racist country. now i am trying to move to south america. good luck to you

  9. zul

    dear tiara, same discrimination tolerating here now. dat goes sucks day by day. u r really lucky, not for having a red ic, that u not trying to get a job here. wt i face. with a degree i din got a job wt a local spm holder can get.

    they say bangla, sy cni pnya org. wtf, u r local, cz u get ic by born, hey stupid, wt u achieve by urself? nothing. u r local malaysin that wasnt great deal. its natural. but they dnt try to realize.

    but i really happy to read ur post. some1 shud describe the true color of some bloody local arrogant.

    hws ur life goin??

  10. rana

    Tiara, Sympathy for your sufferings ! But, it is right question for you. Why do you want to be a malaysian citizen?
    I guess, you are an atheist, right? Western world would be happy to embrace you.
    You are not welcome to Bangladesh as well. You are one who are spreading Devil ideologies in Innocent Muslim culture! I know about you. So, Please, spread your Fitnah outside. Thanks.

    • ???

      Rana i support you. Tiara, your father was brought in as a civil engineer? i had thinking, is that malaysia not enough civil engineer? in malaysia had a ton of jobless civil engineer waiting your father position.

      • celaru

        well well well.. isn't that nice.. yes, there are lots of jobless malaysian or more specifically malay engineers out there.. here's the question.. are you competent enough? tiara's father was brought over as an engineer.. 40 YEARS AGO!!! think u can just come fresh out of college and beat some 40 years WORKING experience? pffttt.. i think that's just some typical malay thingy.. yes we do have competent malays out there. they have better attitude and they live up to their claims thus they are working with some big companies or on freelance basis whichever suits their style. another group of population are living on ketuanan melayu basis which are useless when you go to big corporations with competent people coming from all over the world. that's the truth. just get over it. and yes i'm a malay..

    • anti_racism

      Dear RANA & ???… you should'nt have say like this, Tiara is a Malaysian born child same as you… & please check in the Islamic Univesity Malaysia, i've found more than 35 teachers from Bangladesh!!! : O

  11. Ckid

    I am sorry to hear of your experiences and inspired by where your journey has led you. Some of the painful discrimination that you have experienced mirrors the ones that I went through growing up as a Chinese in a Malay majority "classroom". Although that classroom was attended on a once a week basis, the remarks and nuances certainly left indelible scars on the person I am today. And, I did not grow up in Malaysia. Racism is everywhere and I am sure in one way or another, another child somewhere some other place, is having his / her first date with prejudice. :(

    All the best.

  12. benesan, that's the kind of honest respond i am looking for here, instead of the pathetic self-loathing everyone has for malaysia. nobody is here on gag, if it's that bad and everybody is a dick, then leave. i would leave if i were as miserable as all the people who can't seemed to stand malaysia.

  13. Benesan

    I feel for you miss. I would never want M'sian citizenship even if given on silver platter over Australia. My parents bailed from Malaysia cos it was scummy, incompetent politicians, poor education and bigoted locals. I say the hell with wanting a red passport and myki, most places in the world are better to be a citizen in than Malaysia!!!

  14. tiara, you dont have to present yourself as malaysian. if this country dealt you a crude hand not worthy of your personality, then fuck it. if it's so bad, why bother to be nice?

  15. why should tiara be constitutionally malay? if anyone should be constitutionally malay, better give it to the chinese and indian borned malaysians as opposed to someone who is borned of foreign parentage. not that i assumed chinese and indians want to be constitutionally malay if not for the special rights (tak special pun). and please, it's not like it is easy to get citizenship elsewhere unless you have usd20k and a degree under your belt. this country will stay incompetent for a long time.

  16. wengman

    Also, to Malaysian First who think that getting citizenship is a privilege, I would say "Really?!". Tell that to any native Sabahan who are now being swamped by blue IC border-crossing illegal immigrants. Does it make you any special now?

    Another unfortunate thing Tiara, you are not a constitutional Malay. That is one thing to note.

  17. wengman

    I stopped caring at 'FUCK THAT'. But really, they would rather give illegal border-crossing Indonesians and Pinoys/Pinays blue IC than you. That is how efficient our government is. Hang around the areas having by-election and tell your plight to the ministers making their round. You actually have a better chance of getting blue IC and appearing in the news at the same time.

  18. Malaysian First

    my sympathy for the treatment given to u by fellow Malaysians, but with regards of citizenship is a RIGHT.. fuck that.. it is indeed a privileges..

  19. Batu 5

    Hello Tiara,

    I sympathize with your plight. Really, I do. The concept of race or nationality is a birth lottery, something which isn't a choice.

    That being the case, I think there's a demarcation between the nation called Malaysia and the Malaysian government. I think the abject discrimination that you face was primarily from the Malaysian government.

    I do concede that there are certain pockets of society that do discriminate base on race as you have gone through in school. I don't deny that. However, most people are conditioned to behave that way. Intolerance to difference.

    But why? I blame the Malaysian government. Race based politics accentuates the racial divide. It's always an us (one race) vs them (another race) mentality.

    Every single day, race plays a factor, especially in core issues, amplified by the media. People like you and me, who are different are victimized.

    I feel your pain. But I'm I love this country. And I will stay. Not for travel benefits or anything. It's because if people like us don't stay, we would have failed this beloved nation which is my tanah tumpah darah.

  20. Tiara,

    You ARE a Malaysian.

    In fact, you are more deserving to be called a Malaysian than most of us.

    As Sam said to Frodo in LOTR – it's worth fighting for.

    So let's not lose hope, but keep fighting. For our nation, for our Malaysia.

  21. Papaseed

    I feel so sad and sorry after reading your article. I want to apologize to you on behalf of the other inconsiderate Malays/Malaysians that have made Malaysia a living hell to you. Please accept my sincere apology and please find in your heart the strength to forgive us..

    Maybe you have met the wrong Malaysians in your early life, and hopefully your journey as a Malaysian will become less bumpier than this. Whatever it is, be strong and don't let the third world mentality of some small thinking Malaysians let you down.

    May the force be with you ;)

  22. BornFreeLion

    I empathise with Tiara on her situation. Wish you lots of luck end of this year for your papers, but if you don't get it, no worries – their loss, not yours.

    As for CharlesKiwi, hey, not everyone born in Europe is granted a citizenship! E.g. the Turkish migrant- or guestworkers etc and their coming-of-age children in many EU countries also have to sit for german/french/etc language exams and citizenship tests where one is tested on many historical, policy, constitutional, institutional, administrative, municipal law etc. Kids have been deported by EU countries to a land they have never known…. . Unfair, but these have happened.

    Flip-flop policy by the government on PR and citizenship applications results in uncertainty. Corruption is reportedly rife ('undertable money') for successful 'applications'. Xenophobia of anything 'coloured' is also high (anything 'white' would be on a near-God pedestal). Etc.

    Tiara, you are a bright person. Never mind the blue IC and stuff. Go forth in this world and walk your mission in life. Brave womyn, salute!

  23. Er, I do have a red IC. I'm one of the people you talk about – a Malaysian-born red IC holder. And I may be a bit young to pay taxes, but my parents certainly do. And my parents did wait close to 40 years to even get anywhere near citizenship.

    Did you even read the article?

    • limbeecheng

      hi,tiara! can i ask you a question that i think you can give me a better answer..and my question is can Malaysian red IC holder allow to renew their passport to travel outside country?becos my day is one of the red ic holder,i am so confuse that if he is not a blue ic holder and can i just take him to malaysia immigration department to renew his malaysia expire passport?

      awaiting your help,thank you!

      KL LIM

  24. You are so lucky you don't have a red I/C, think you are getting hell ? Think of the million Malaysian born red I/C card holders, they have to pay all the taxes and are not entitle to all the benefits of a Malaysian citizen. Every country I know of will grant anyone born in that country the right to be a citizen, but not in Malaysia. What a bloody country !

    This is just so the present regime is not voted out of the government and this is how Umno stay in power and the pilots to remain the majority.

    You are so lucky that you don't have to wait for 30 to 40 years for a decision for application to become a citizen. Remember the next time just think of the millions of Malaysian born red I/C card holders. They would have immigrated only if they can even going back to China or India if they can and why do you want to be Malaysian ? The country is about to go bankrupt and it may be then too late to regret !