Stateless Persons Can Be Answer To Malaysia's Declining Birth Rate

very school day, 14-year-old Tiara Punithan wakes up at 6.30 am in the living space she shares with her younger sister and father at the back of a small shophouse in Batu Tiga, Klang.

Tiara and her sister, 13-year-old Reshma, love school, where they are reportedly doing well despite joining the school system a few years after they reached school age. 

Tiara said she has been thinking of the future of late.

“What’s the future that I see? Honestly, what do I want? I want a wealthy lifestyle so I have to study hard for that. So I really need to study hard (to get) an easier lifestyle,” she told Bernama, sitting at a small eatery one hot afternoon. 

Tiara wants to be an accountant when she grows up while Reshma wants to be a lawyer.

Her determination rang out, her zeal obvious. But it may not be enough.

Tiara and Reshma are stateless despite being born in Malaysia and to a Malaysian father because they were born out of wedlock to an undocumented Indonesian migrant. Life is hard as non-citizens as they cannot access the same freedoms and services Malaysians take for granted such as education, movement, marriage and employment. 

Ironically, this also means Malaysia will not be able to count on the sisters as contributors to the economy even as the country’s fertility rate – needed to sustain economic growth – continues to decline further. And if some of the proposed amendments to the Federal Constitution on matters related to Malaysian citizenship – dubbed regressive by some non-governmental organisations for removing protections for foundlings, abandoned children and others, and predicted to make statelessness worse – are passed, experts say Malaysia may end up losing out on benefits to the economy.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said recently the proposed amendments will be presented to the Cabinet on March 8.



Malaysia is an upper-middle-income country and will likely transition to a higher-income country. It is also an ageing nation, with seven percent of the population aged 65 and above. Malaysia is expected to hit aged nation status by 2044 once 14 percent of the population is aged 65 and above. 

Declining fertility rates on top of the higher elderly population numbers are a concern as there will soon not be enough people to replace the older generation. 

Economist Prof Yeah Kim Leng of at Sunway University said time is running out to sustain economic growth due to a declining workforce population. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Economist Prof Yeah Kim Leng said although the working age population is still big enough to sustain economic growth currently, time is running out. 

“The working age population will reach a point whereby we only have maybe 10 to 15 years before we see the working age population declining,” he said, adding Malaysia’s brain drain will also likely exacerbate the issue.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the fertility rate in Malaysia was 1.6 children per woman aged 15 to 49 years old in 2023, declining from 2.1 in 2010. Economists peg 2.1 live births as the rate needed to sustain a labour force in industrialised countries and 2.3 in developing nations. 

At the same time, the Malaysian population increased to 34.3 million in 2023 from 33.7 million in 2022, although the percentage of citizens declined to 91.1 percent from 92.4 percent. Non-citizens numbered 2.5 million in 2022 and three million in 2023. In Malaysia, there is no distinction between foreign workers, permanent residents, expatriates, refugees, undocumented migrants and stateless people. 

Statelessness means a person is not a citizen of any country. A stateless person is different from a migrant or refugee. While some refugees may be stateless such as the Rohingya, not all stateless people are refugees. They are also distinct from foreign workers or undocumented migrants who come from other countries. Stateless people cannot leave the country either as they have no papers to travel with.

In Malaysia, stateless people mainly refer to those who were born and raised in Malaysia, and often to at least one Malaysian parent, but whose citizenship is undetermined due to various factors. 

Common reasons for statelessness include non-registration of people born before independence, overly late registration of births, being abandoned at birth with little information with which to trace their parents or inheriting statelessness from their mother. 

Stateless people cannot legally marry so any children they have will be considered born out of wedlock. Since citizenship passes through the mother in such cases, children of stateless women will also be stateless.

In some of the scenarios, such as in the case of foundlings, abandoned children and people born in Malaysian territories pre-independence, they are entitled to citizenship by operation of law under the Federal Constitution.

Exact numbers of stateless people in Malaysia do not exist, although estimates have run from 12,000 to 16,000 in Peninsular Malaysia. There are no official figures for the stateless in Sabah, either, although some reports pegged the number at 300,000 based on the number of non-citizens in the state.

Maalini Ramalo, director of Social Protection at Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas Malaysia during an interview with BERNAMA recently. fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Citizenship rights advocate Maalini Ramalo of Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas Malaysia told Bernama Sabah’s 300,000 stateless figure may be an overestimation as “there is no active process to identify if you're (an) undocumented foreigner, undocumented migrant or you're just a second generation migrant versus if you're truly stateless.

“But in gist, we are unable to estimate the actual number because the government does not record the number of stateless people,” she added.  



Some of the solutions to declining birth rates and the subsequent labour shortages are to increase the number of foreign workers in the country as well as raise the retirement age, which has its own problems.

But rather than looking elsewhere for labour, experts said regularising or allowing the stateless access to education and employment would help them to contribute meaningfully to the economy.

The proposed constitutional amendments on citizenship include removing the right of citizenship from foundlings and abandoned children, and making them apply to the government for citizenship instead. 

Activists told Bernama applications for citizenship have an extremely low approval rate. For example, as of September 2023, only 19 people received their citizenship out of 9,539 applications processed in that year. The process itself is opaque.

Experts say requiring citizenship by registration will likely make the number of stateless people increase, and with it, the burden on the government. Stateless people cannot access education and employment fully, thus reducing the chances of them becoming skilled workers.

“The presence of many stateless individuals poses considerable challenges to governance and hampers the effective utilisation of human capital essential for sustainable economic growth,” said Associate Prof Tey Nai Peng of the Department of Decision Science, Faculty of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaya (UM). 

Subang Member of Parliament Wong Chen published a paper on the cost of statelessness in 2019. In it, he estimated Malaysia lost RM6 billion in revenue in 2018 because they are underemployed and underpaid. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Subang Member of Parliament Wong Chen published a paper in 2019 estimating the cost of statelessness, saying, “There is a grave economic cost in terms of productivity lost to the country by denying and delaying legitimate citizenship applications.”

He said stateless people tend to be underemployed and underpaid. As such, he assumed stateless people would have had half of the average productivity value for 2018, which was RM81,039, when making his calculations.

“By multiplying (the estimated) 150,000 stateless people at half the productivity rate or RM40,520, the annual average productivity value loss is about RM6 billion a year,” he told Bernama.  



A spike in population, such as an influx of Malaysians newly granted citizenship, may be too much for the present infrastructure and system to sustain. 

Tey, who was a coordinator at the Population Studies Unit at UM until 2018, said uncontrolled and rapid population growth can exert pressure on natural resources and contribute to environmental degradation as well as other issues like overcrowding in metropolitan areas and putting strain on public services. 

“Moreover, it can exacerbate problems such as high unemployment rates, poverty and income inequality,” he said.

As such, it is important for the government to engage with civil society and study the issues thoroughly. Tey also said the government needs to weigh the ramifications of the proposed constitutional amendments on the rights and welfare of vulnerable populations and the broader socio-economic implications for the nation.

However, the benefits outweigh the risks as long as efforts are made to create a diverse, creative and skilled workforce. One of the significant benefits is the creation of more taxpayers to fund public services such as healthcare, education and infrastructure, he added.

Yeah agreed, saying one should not assume that regularised stateless people will automatically be a drain on the government.

“There will be some that will be successful. So those that are successful will contribute more to the country's revenue base,” he said.

He also said although the number of genuine stateless persons in Malaysia is very small, it would make sense if the government sets up a citizenship quota system for them. He added the government could start small and gradually build up to accept more stateless people, depending on the capacity and the conditions of the economy.

Malaysian citizen Punithan, father to two stateless girls Tiara and Reshma, is worried about his daughters' future should he pass away. He had a heart attack last year and had to undergo bypass surgery. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

While the government mulls whether to pass the proposed amendments or keep the Federal Constitution as it is, time marches on for Tiara, Reshma and their father 58-year-old Punithan.

It won’t be long before the sisters hit 18 and should the amendments pass, it will likely be the end of the line for their journey to citizenship. More urgent is the fact that Punithan suffers from heart disease, surviving a heart attack last year that required him to undergo bypass surgery.

“I worry about my dad because a lot has happened to him recently and he's getting older, not younger. There might be unexpected sickness coming for him soon enough. And yet he still didn't quit smoking,” Tiara said.

Punithan nodded. “I have to take care of this because if I die, who will take care of my girls?” 



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