"Firstly, children because they are the most vulnerable if not the most vulnerable in society and children are children, you cannot discriminate between non-citizen children and citizen children. They are children, they are supposed to live a life of childhood, not selling fruits house to house under the sun, under rain. I asked the children to go inside the house because it’s raining and they are still selling fruits. So what kind of life are we giving them when we are denying them citizenship or if we deny them even though it's not citizenship, if it is any form of documents that they are able to recognise, to be able to receive health care and education. Basic rights, I am only asking for basic rights for now. And, you know that’s my vision, for all children, regardless of nationality, to be able to live a life of dignity. In Sabah, as well as in the whole of Malaysia.” - Anne Baltazar
“When I was younger, I was stopped from going to school because I did not have an IC (identity card). The reason I lost my IC was because my mother had left with her marriage certificate. That made me really stressed because I wasn’t able to go to school for two years. If that was stressful, then those who are stateless that have nothing must feel even more so. Many of my friends cannot do many things such as registering for a bank card and doing work.) - Nur Cameliah Binti Thomas (Atea)
We were lucky to be given the opportunity to interview Anne Baltazar and Nur Cameliah Binti Thomas, who is more fondly known as Atea. Born in Kota Kinabalu, Anne is a Filipino-Kadazan, while Atea is a Dusun-Bugis from Keningau, Sabah. Both Anne and Atea are currently based in Putatan, Sabah, and are actively advocating against discrimination and statelessness under ANAK, an organisation founded by Anne.
Growing up, Anne and Atea has faced one form of discrimination and statelessness or another, and it continues to be a prevalent issue in Sabah. They shared their experience working in this field of work, challenges faced on ground, as well as their thoughts on addressing this issue in Malaysia. More on their insights below.
What do you love about Malaysia?
Anne: I would say that I love the peacefulness. Despite the instability, there are no wars - no people killing each other with guns. So, I’m very grateful for that.
Atea: I love the many different cultures in this country. It makes things interesting.
Have you experienced any form of discrimination before? How did you overcome that?
Anne: Yes, in secondary school. I was picked on and boys often used derogatory terms such
as ‘pilak’. This was usually used not only for Filipinos, but for anybody that looked foreign or had darker skin. At that age, I was still finding my identity, so I overcame this by meeting up with other Filipinos in my school and realizing that they all looked pretty, so I wondered why they had problems with us. At the time, that was the most I could do to stand up for my own people. As I grew up, I owned my Filipino identity.
Atea: Yes, I used to work at Boulevard Hotel in the Peninsular (Malaysia). I received different comments such as I speak too fast, and when I returned to the workplace after my holidays, the manager welcomed me back to Malaysia. However, I don’t really let it affect me because it’s always been like this. At times, people have also used the word ‘pelarian’ (refugee) to refer to those who are mixed.
Are people still being discriminated against in Sabah?
Anne: This goes back to the 70s, where many Sabahans and Sarawakians feel like second class citizens when Muslim migrants from the Philippines had received their IC (identity card) and identified themselves as Malay. The population of Malays has been growing while the population of KDRM (Kadazan, Dusun, Rungus, Murut) has reduced. Thus, there is the fear of being a minority when they were once a majority. This is a reason as to why there is discrimination towards stateless and undocumented communities here.
We had one case where a grandma was trying to get a birth certificate for her grandchild because her own child was missing. However, she was discriminated against because the NRD (National Registration Department) did not believe that she was of Dusun descent due to her darker skin colour.
Atea: Yes, there is a lot of discrimination in Sabah. However, it is only at its extreme during the political season. Otherwise, the people of Sabah get along in their daily lives. At times, I have found that some people do not wish to say their real ethnicity, despite it being stated on their birth certificate.
What do you think are the biggest issues/challenges the people and youth in Sabah are facing?
Anne: For the people, one of the biggest issues is that the living costs are expensive compared to the low pay received. This means that when people get married and have children, they will often stay with their parents because they cannot afford to get their own property.
Another issue that the youth face is the shame of going back home when they fail to secure a job in the Peninsular (such as in Kuala Lumpur), thus they choose to become homeless rather than to return to their parents. There is a stigma associated with working on the land and they believe that it is more respectable for the youth to work at the office instead.
Atea: For the young people, there is a lack of opportunities in Sabah. If a student wanted to pursue a career in music, they would have to go elsewhere such as in the Peninsular or out of the country for better opportunities. People may look down on the youth that do not leave, believing that they won’t find success here. What Sabah lacks is facilities to help the youth pursue their career.
What are some issues that have been happening in your community recently?
Anne: Food security has become an issue especially for the migrant and undocumented families in the city because they do not have their own land. They rely on money so when they lose their daily paid jobs, they will not be able to feed themselves and their families. Many are struggling, thus some send their children out to other families so that they can be fed, while others eat the leftover food of their neighbours or parents will allow children to eat first and then take the leftovers.
Atea: The pandemic has caused many students to stop schooling to search for work and sell fruits, so that they can get money and eat for that day itself. Many parents believe that it is more important to earn rather than whatever type of schooling that can be offered, regardless if it’s online or face to face. The youngest of these children who leave school to sell fruits are in kindergarten.
What does it mean to be stateless, and how has it impacted you?
Anne: The UN (United Nation) convention defines statelessness as someone who is not a national of any country under the operations of its law. It’s very common for undocumented migrants to not have marriage certificates as many marry informally, such as those in the villages. So even if the child were to have a parent that was a citizen, without the document, you are unable to get citizenship. For Filipinos, there is no Philippines embassy in Sabah, so they have to go to Kuala Lumpur. This means that the costs to travel to Kuala Lumpur are expensive resulting in migrants becoming undocumented because it is inaccessible to the marginalized and poor communities.
Atea: When I was younger, I was stopped from going to school because I did not have an IC (identity card). The reason I lost my IC was because my mother had left with her marriage certificate. I was stressed because I wasn’t able to go to school for two years. If that was stressful, then those who are stateless that have nothing must feel even more so. Many of my friends cannot do many things such as registering for a bank card and finding jobs.
Can you share what your organisation, ANAK, is about?
Anne: ANAK stands for Advocates for Non-Discrimination and Access to Knowledge. A majority of non-citizens in Sabah are of Fillipino and Indonesian descent. So, it’s also called ANAK because ANAK in Tagalog, Indonesian, and Malaysian language means child. We mostly work with non-citizen communities focusing on children. I started ANAK as a nonprofit, firstly doing it on a voluntary basis after graduation, and later working on it full-time. Back in 2009, there were very little NGOs that were focused on handling issues regarding statelessness, undocumented and non-citizens, thus I decided to form this NGO to work on these issues.
Atea: I work on the ground, where I will go to different villages that are composed of Indonesians, Bajau, and Sulu. It is difficult for them because they only have a single language to communicate in, so we have several different people in the team that can communicate with them in their language. During the pandemic season, we focused on providing food aid but before this, we helped with managing documentation.
What are the challenges you are currently facing in your organisation?
Anne & Atea: An issue we face is funding. Applying for funding as an NGO that works with undocumented, stateless, non-citizen is difficult because there is little to no support locally. Most of the funding comes internationally. Atea used to do a lot of work for free, with money typically from our own pocket, but there are costs to sustain an organisation such as travel costs. Since many of us have our own families, I cannot expect everyone to use all of their money for this, so I decided that we would only do larger projects when we receive funding. Otherwise, we will stick to small projects.
How does statelessness affect Malaysia?
Anne: The situation is too politicised and everyone gets heated about the situation when it is voting season. In turn, the stateless and undocumented individuals are targetted and looked down upon. People need to understand that we are all the same with the same coloured blood flowing through our veins.
The stateless and undocumented citizens are denied basic health care, such as access to vaccinations, and are used as a method of political advertisement. There will also be issues with the growing population as there is an estimated population of a third of Sabah consisting of those who are stateless. This means that without the opportunity for education and work, families in the villages will be formed at a younger age and the families will have many children. Therefore, the population of the stateless will only continue to grow. This problem will not be resolved by ignoring it or sending them away, but we must instead set up the proper documentation processes.
Atea: We need to be more understanding as to what the stateless and undocumented individuals are facing. People from my family also have their thoughts towards the stateless and undocumented affected as they see the ‘hate’ speech that is spread on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, etc. People feel inclined to like and give into the hate speech without confirming whether it is true or biased.
How can the younger generation play a role to address this issue?
Anne: I don’t know if it’s just my circle of friends when I go to KL, but I feel that the awareness is a bit higher in the Peninsular. I think friends from West Malaysia can influence the young people here to view the issue in a macro way. When they go to KL, and then you get lots of people talking about human rights, and helping refugees. There are a lot of student movements for stateless communities, especially from universities. I have faith in young people because ten years ago, nobody was talking about this issue. Suddenly, “eh, they helped refugees, we also got these kinds of communities back in Sabah, maybe we should do something”. When the students brought it up at their universities, more people are starting to look at it in a different light.
Atea: Many friends from Semenanjung (Peninsular) help with this issue. I think many in Semenanjung know because there are many youth movements that come to Sabah to see the situation, so I hope the situation of the undocumented and stateless individuals can continue to be shared across the many social media platforms.
How do you think Malaysians can embrace each other?
Anne: To be able to get to know what kind of individuals each other are and not let stereotypes or comments about others to cloud our judgements. This can be done through dialogues with local and migrant communities because people can be quite afraid of the things they don’t know but when they take the time to know each other, then they will understand it on their own. So, don’t only get to know people in your own circle but others as well.
What is your vision and hope for Sabah?
Anne: Firstly, children because they are the most vulnerable, if not the most vulnerable in society. Children are children, you cannot discriminate between non-citizen children and citizen children. They are children, they are supposed to live a life of childhood, not selling fruits house to house under the sun, under rain. I asked the children to go inside the house because it’s raining, but they were still selling fruits. What kind of life are we giving them when we are denying them citizenship or if we deny them even though it's not citizenship, if it is any form of documents that they are able to recognise to be able to receive health care and education. Basic rights, I am only asking for basic rights for now. And, you know that’s my vision, for all children, regardless of nationality, to be able to live a life of dignity. In Sabah, as well as in the whole of Malaysia.
This interview opened our eyes to the various issues that have persisted from the past as well as the current issues faced by migrant and undocumented families in Sabah. We realised the importance of our IC - for education, access to healthcare, and jobs, and how we take this for granted.
We could not imagine the plight of the stateless and undocumented communities, but we applaud the effort of the many youth movements and universities to drive greater awareness and continuously contributing to make a difference for these communities.
___ Interviewee: Anne Baltazar & Nur Cameliah Binti Thomas (Atea) Interviewer: Venus Choo Jia Qian & Muhammad Thaqif, supported by Faye Lim Written by: Venus Choo Jia Qian & Muhammad Thaqif Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza