Malaysia Delays Vote on Citizenship Bill Amid Public Outcry

Kuala Lumpur – Malaysian lawmakers have postponed voting on a contentious Bill to amend citizenship laws following public outrage, potentially risking the Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration’s failure to secure the necessary majority for the Bill to pass. The vote, originally scheduled for March 27, has been rescheduled to June when the federal Parliament reconvenes. The government aims to garner more support from its own Members of Parliament (MPs) who oppose the proposed citizenship reforms, as well as civil society groups and legal experts.

The proposed Bill, comprising seven amendments, three new provisions, and repeals, seeks to tighten the criteria for obtaining citizenship. The Anwar-led government opted to defer the Bill to address concerns from stakeholders, particularly dissenting lawmakers within the ruling party, in hopes of attaining the required two-thirds majority vote, analysts noted. Some MPs within Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition oppose certain aspects of the Bill, arguing they fail to adequately address issues of statelessness, especially concerning abandoned infants and children from impoverished or rural backgrounds lacking citizenship documentation.

According to Ms. Arinah Najwa of strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia, “There is room for more changes in amendments to happen as the government is seeking to find middle ground by buying more time to listen to enforcement agencies, MPs in its own coalition, and also civil society groups.” Passing amendments to the federal Constitution necessitates a two-thirds supermajority, which Anwar enjoys with the support of defectors from the opposition. However, any dissent within his PH coalition, comprising 81 lawmakers, could jeopardize the Bill’s passage and raise concerns about his government’s stability.

On March 27, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution tabled the second reading of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2024 in Parliament but deferred the third reading, which would precede a vote, prompting Speaker Johari Abdul to adjourn the session. The Bill sparked controversy earlier for its proposal to remove citizenship rights for stateless children born in Malaysia and foundlings, triggering widespread condemnation. This contentious amendment was later dropped amid concerns that it would render thousands of children stateless.

While some proposed changes, such as granting Malaysian citizenship to children born abroad to mothers, have received praise, others, including scrapping automatic citizenship for children of permanent residents born in Malaysia, have faced criticism. The delay in voting on the citizenship amendments compounds political challenges for Anwar, who has faced accusations of reneging on reform promises. Recent unpopular government decisions, such as raising sales and services tax and handling controversies poorly, have further dented his administration’s popularity.