An interesting aspect of the recently concluded UK elections was that Malaysians living there could also vote, since they are Commonwealth citizens. Many of them may well have done so. What they probably did not realise was that they could now lose their Malaysian citizenship as a result.
UK law allows Commonwealth citizens to vote
CITIZENS of Commonwealth countries in the UK have the right to vote in local, parliamentary, and European elections: a right not extended to EU or US citizens. Thus someone from Kota Baru can vote in Newcastle, and on May 6 nearly 50,000 Malaysians – but not Indonesians or Thais – will have the chance to vote in the UK general election.
Tunku Abidin’s article is interesting in that he urged Malaysians to vote, pointing out with prescience that every vote would count, and urged a vote for the Conservative Party partly based on historic events in Britain’s history which impacted on Malaysian politics. Key events were identified where Malaysians interests seemed to suffer when it was Labour government policies that were sought to be implemented on us.
Unlike Malaysia, which disenfranchises eligible voters just because they did not register, the UK sends polling cards to anyone they think is qualified to vote. When I was studying in the UK, I received a polling card because my name was in the register of my student halls of accommodation, my university had sent that register to the local council and the local council saw that I was entitled to vote.
But Malaysian law says vote overseas and you can lose your citizenship
Now, I have the greatest respect for Tunku Abidin, but unfortunately like many Malaysians he seems not to have realised that whilst the UK lawfully allows us to vote there, Malaysia is rather more restrained in how it allows its citizens to exercise their individual freedoms.
For those Malaysian citizens who did vote in the recent elections, beware: the Home Minister now has the power to deprive you of your Malaysian citizenship.
Article 24(2) of the Federal Constitution says this:
(2) If the Federal Government is satisfied that any citizen has voluntarily claimed and exercised in any country outside the Federation any rights available to him under the law of that country, being rights accorded exclusively to its citizens, the Federal Government may by order deprive that person of his citizenship.
“Aha!”, I hear you say, “the right to vote in the UK is not a right exclusively to citizens of the UK! So how can I be deprived of my Malaysian citizenship?”
Well, Article 24(3A) provides that:
The exercise of a vote in any political election in a place outside the Federation shall be deemed to be the voluntary claim and exercise of a right available under the law of that place.
It goes on to also give a right to the government to deprive the citizenship of anyone who applies for or uses a foreign passport.
It happened in 1976
Constitutional historians may be able to explain why this change happened. It seems to have been done in 1976, when the words “any country outside the Federation” was inserted in substitution for “any foreign country”. (Article 160 of the Federal Constitution defines “foreign country” as not including “any part of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”).
In addition, clause 3 of Article 24 was removed which said:
(3) Where provision is in force under the law of any part of the Commonwealth for conferring on citizens of that part of the Commonwealth rights not available to other Commonwealth citizens, Clause (2) shall apply, in relation to those rights, as if that part of the Commonwealth were a foreign country.
Basically, what that meant was that before 1976, you could only lose citizenship if you exercised rights normally associated with a citizen in a “foreign country” other than Ireland or any part of the Commonwealth, or in a Commonwealth country that had restricted those rights to only its own citizens. Then, from 1976, the Commonwealth was treated for these purposes as a foreign country as well, and the special relationship in this context was severed.
Luckily for me I did not vote in those UK elections of 1997 for which I received a polling card. (Sorry Tunku, I would have voted Labour – but then almost everyone did that year!)
But for those Malaysians who did vote in the UK elections just gone by, don’t tell the Home Minister and for heaven’s sake, don’t blog, tweet, update your Facebook or email the whole world about it!
LB: To learn more about the Federal Constitution, go to the Bar Council’s excellent MyConsti campaign website.