Some of you may know by now that Leen and I are expecting our second child (you can call him A2 for now) sometime in March. That means I’ll be doing all that baby stuff again, which includes not only sleepless nights (woohoo, can’t wait) but also a visit to the National Registration Department to get our child a birth certificate. I blogged about the registration of Alisdair’s birth here. If you don’t want to read that post, here’s a summary: the form asked for both my keturunan and Leen’s; since keturunan means ancestry and my ancestors migrated to Canada from Scotland, England, France, and Ireland, I put European on the form. Traditionally, children in Malaysia (at least in the dominant Malay culture) have taken on the ethnicity, religion, etc. of their fathers. So technically, at least according to his birth certificate, Alisdair is not Malay but European.

As someone who’s interested in culture, history, and genealogy — and as someone who spends way too much time thinking about things when most people would have just moved on — I’ve spent the last few years wondering about the choice I made that day, identifying myself and my son as European. After all, he’s never been to Europe, and the only time I’ve ever been there was a brief transit through Stockholm on my last trip home in 2005. I suppose if I had to choose just one population to identify with in terms of ancestry, I’d just go along with what the MacVays have been identifying themselves as for several hundred years: Scottish. But I went with European anyway, since it’s also technically true. I certainly wasn’t going to go with Caucasian or White or anything like that.

Well, it turns out European is exactly what the Malaysian government considers my ancestry to be; the National Registration Department would have put that into their system even if I had put Scottish or Canadian (which one could argue is a good label for my ancestry, though it’s more accurately my nationality) on the form. I know that because fellow blogger Bin Gregory recently visited the NRD/JPN to register his youngest son (his seventh child, I believe). Here’s what he told me:

JPN has redesigned their birth certificates again. For the first time, the race of the child is listed right on the cert. As you know, in the past it listed the race of the mother and father but not the kid, leaving the child’s race undetermined. Well not anymore – the kid takes the father’s race and now I have my first official European child, haha, though in fact the JPN told me all my kids are in the computer as Euro. Just thought I’d tell ya, in case you were as confused as I was about it. I asked to be listed as American, but that’s not a recognized category, apparently. I don’t suppose Canadian is either. :-)

So I guess I made the right choice in identifying myself as European, since that’s what all ‘white’ parents of Malaysian children are labeled with anyway. But Bin Gregory’s experience did leave me somewhat confused. When I registered Alisdair’s birth I already suspected that the lack of space for his keturunan on the form meant his would just follow mine, but I was never really sure. Leen and I always assumed — or rather hoped — that the lack of an official keturunan for Al meant we could get away with identifying him as Malay. But again, we were never sure. With this new information, it seemed we had our answer: all ‘white’ parents are European by default; children inherit the keturunan of their fathers by default; therefore, Alisdair is officially European, not Malay. OK, fair enough (he’s still got bumiputera status anyway, by virtue of having one Malay parent), but I needed to be sure. So I went straight to the source.

Today I called the National Registration Department and asked someone there the following questions: 1) Do all ‘white’ parents of Malaysian children have European as their keturunan? 2) Do children automatically follow their fathers? 3) If a child’s ancestry is European, does that mean the child is officially non-Malay, even if the child’s mother is Malay?

1) According to the friendly officer who spoke with me (I didn’t get his name because I’m really horrible at remembering to ask for names like that, and even worse at remembering them), yes, all ‘white’ parents of Malaysian children are automatically European. It doesn’t matter what they enter for their keturunan, because in the department’s system they’re on file as European. That’s why Bin Gregory was told all of his children were in the system as European, even though that’s not what he’d listed as his ancestry. Whether you’re American, Canadian, or actually one of the various flavours of European, you’re European to the Malaysian government. As long as you’re ‘white’ anyway. Asian ancestries are broken down (Malay, Chinese, Indian, etc.) but those from outside Asia are put into larger groupings. So if you’re American, Canadian, European or whatever, and you happen to be black, well then your ancestry will probably be in the system here as African (though that’s just an assumption, since I didn’t specifically ask about non-white foreigners).

2) Yes, children automatically follow their fathers. So if my ancestry is European, my children are considered European as well. However, that’s just the default. For more information on that, let’s look at the answer to the next question.

3) Yes, if the father’s ancestry is European, and the child is officially European as well, then the child is not Malay. Bumiputera, yes, but not Malay. However, like I said above, that’s just the default. This is where the reasoning for specifying the child’s keturunan on the birth certificate comes in: parents can now choose to have their children be officially identified with either of their ancestries. So when our next child is born, I’ll be European, Leen will be Malay, and A2 can be either one. I’m not completely comfortable with this, as I would prefer to have both lineages count towards his ancestry (even if that meant he would be put into the system as Eurasian). But it’s good news for anyone who really wants their kids to be ‘officially’ Malay. We’re still undecided. I mean, Al (along with his future adik) is for all intents and purposes Malay, no matter what label the government puts on him; plus, like I said, he’s also a bumiputera, which will come in handy. What we need to figure out is whether or not there’s any real advantage to being not just Bumiputera but a Malay Bumiputera. Being a Muslim and a Bumiputera should mean our kids will have plenty of opportunities and privileges even if they’re not technically Malay (opportunities and privileges which ideally all Malaysians would enjoy, but I’m thinking as a parent here).

But there’s a catch: children born before the introduction of the new birth certificate are considered to be of whatever ancestry their fathers are; to change the official ancestry of a child born before the new birth cert came out, parents have to apply to the National Registration Department. The officer I spoke to reminded me that there’s no guarantee such applications will be approved. So it’s quite possible that if we choose to register A2 as Malay, we’ll have one European kid and one Malay kid, even though both have the same parents. That would be a bit strange.