Some Information About Malaysian Birth Certificates and ‘Official’ Ancestry

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.

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28 Responses to Some Information About Malaysian Birth Certificates and ‘Official’ Ancestry

  1. bingregory says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute! I went over it backwards and forwards with JPN three weeks back and they told me in no uncertain terms that the child follows the father and that’s all there is to it. They didn’t say anything about having a choice! Is this another case of wacky Sarawakian exemptions to the national rule, or did I get a bad steer from the counter staff?

  2. Jordan says:

    I made sure to ask the guy about your case, and he just said something about Sarawak not being under the same act. So while it is possible one of us got the wrong information (which as we know happens all the time), it seems this is indeed another case of wacky Sarawakian exemptions to the national rule.

  3. bingregory says:

    Hmph. Well I appreciate you digging into it. With 6 already Euro, I wouldn’t change just the one kid. Maybe one day I’d file for all 7 if there was any advantage to it. Mmm, government forms in septicate, how fun.

  4. HijabMan says:

    Thanks Jordan for the two calls you made today :) and for reporting back.

    You guys crack me up. I can’t wait to be part o’ the club!

  5. dairy queen fan says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. When I registered my kids in Malaysia I looked over the shoulder of the lady at the registration office and watched as she entered the data into the computer and I realized there was a few more fields on that screen. I suspected as much as what you have uncovered.

    There is another “hidden” aspect of registration as well and as I understood it a child born to “mixed” parents will always have the guardian/custodian recorded as the non-foreigner. Evidently in the “unmixed” situation the guardian/custodian is typically the father. I don’t know if this has any practical implications.

  6. dairy queen fan says:

    I just checked our four kids Malaysian birth certs (all prior to 2007). The registration department recorded the fathers race as “Canadian”. I suspect the failure of them to record the race of Bingregory’s kids as American is just inconsistent implementation of their officers who often seem to take on their own or their managers preferences instead of adhering to a clear unambiguous policy.

  7. Jordan says:

    DQF: That’s the thing: One thing they told both me and Bin Gregory was that it doesn’t matter what’s actually on the birth cert, but what’s in their system, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. I could have put my ancestry as pretty much anything when I registered Al’s birth: Canadian, Scottish, White, Caucasian, European, Irish…but they put European in their system. So your kids, Bin Gregory’s, and mine are all European, unless we apply to have their ancestry changed to that of their mothers.

  8. dairy queen fan says:

    I recall seeing the registration lady select European on her screen yet the output on the birth cert is Canadian and her explanation was consistent with what was explained to you. I seem to recall that the race (where European was recorded) was a “picklisted” field in IT speak, forcing a particular choice to the staff (probably very limited options). Perhaps due to complaints the system was extended to have an additional field that was free-form to deal with all sorts of race variations that would have taken way too much effort to codify. I suspect no clear policy was provided for this new “race” field and in the end it was this field that was printed on the birth-cert leaving different officers/offices with the ability to make their own policy on how this field was populated. I can just imagine all the strange combinations these two fields have produced! Sometimes IT systems and their limitations and work-arounds take over leaving everyone trying to make sense of the data and nobody with the balls to make a change or afraid of touching all the old data. As an architect of IT systems, I would have avoided the entire issue of race and related complexities. The effort to properly record race would be defeated by the general population who don’t understand or really care about details related to mixed ancestory. One of the underlying principles in implementing any system is determining if the effort (cost) is worth the benefit and in identifying alternative ways to fulfill the requirement. This brings up the real question, why bother to record race at all? Clearly determining bumi priviledges is not done by just ascertaining race from the birth cert so what is the purpose of race on the birth cert?

  9. bingregory says:

    DQF, so your kids are ethnic Canadians… Congratulations! Yours sounds like an insider’s explanation. Thanks for that. Makes perfect sense really. Maddening though. All these ridiculous ISO 9001 flowcharts on the walls and networked computers and yet the process is still completely opaque and susceptible to personal fiat.

  10. Jordan says:

    The bottom line is this: the government can put whatever they want in their computer system, but ultimately that doesn’t decide what our kids are. Mine are Malay, Malaysian, Scottish-Canadian, just plain Canadian, Javanese, and whatever they eventually decide they are.

  11. MarinaM says:

    My older daughter is half-French and half-Malay but she has a French passport so she doesn’t get into the Malaysian system. But when she went to local school, I used to write Melayu/Perancis in the race column. Nobody said anything. (But I guess they woudn’t have to me.)

    My second daughter is half-Indonesian (Javanese). I wonder what race she’s meant to be then. Sosrowardoyo is definitely not a Malay name, ha, ha! (Oh but then there’s Khir Toyo….)

  12. Jordan says:

    Marina: I think the only truly disturbing aspect of this whole “your father’s ancestry is your ancestry” rule, even if it’s now optional, is that they’re not applying it across the board. No one questions my wife’s claim to be Malay, for example, despite the fact that her grandfather was from Pekalongan in Central Java. That means technically my late father-in-law wasn’t Malay; nor, technically, is my wife. Nor is your father, which means neither are you. In fact, I would imagine a huge chunk of the people who call themselves Malay in this country would be officially something else, if this rule were to be applied consistently. But of course, while what I’ve just said is absolutely true, it’s also complete bullshit, because if someone grows up with Malay culture, speaks Malay as a mother tongue and is a Muslim, who the hell is anyone to tell them they’re not Malay? My European-Canadian-Malaysian kids? Malay, whether it’s official or not.

  13. azlin says:

    Let see…

    On lil guy’s myKid:-
    Taraf: Warganegara
    Agama Ibu/Bapa: Islam
    Apparently, the layout for myKid differs slightly for different state. I compared his myKid and a few of my friends with kids born the same year. Some of them do not have Agama Ibu/Bapa’s printed.

    Lil Guy’s birth certificate:-
    Taraf Kewarganegaraan: Warganegara
    Keturunan Bapa: Caucasian (We didn’t choose this but the form was completed by the hospital and we just took it to JPN)
    There’s no Keturunan for the kid stated in the document. When I went to pick up his myKid this year and showed the 2005 birth certificate, I was told to change it again. I asked if I don’t what’s the impact. The officer said none except when I want to do his passport, Immigration requires the new birth certificate. Heck, everything is in the system, why do they need us to change that piece of paper so many time!

    Remember I told you my dad got a letter from Selangor JPN to “certify” that I, the mother, is Malay and Bumiputera. I don’t care about it actually but my stepmom who is a teacher told me to get one to ensure smooth school registration. We’ll see next year when I go to register and whether it will be smooth or not.

  14. azlin says:

    I guess our kids will never be UMNO’s member ;) They ain’t malay! Muahahahahaha……

  15. norida says:

    Are you sure that even though our children keturunan is european but they still considered as bumiputera?. But it doesn’t stated anyway in the birthcert that they are bumi.

  16. Jordan says:

    Azlin: That’s actually a very good reason to leave their ancestry as European, haha!

    Norida: Yes, they’re definitely Bumiputera. Their mothers’ Malay ancestry is clearly shown on their birth certs; in West Malaysia, only one parent (doesn’t matter which one) needs to be Malay/Bumi for the kids to have Bumi status. Just to be sure, I asked the officer at JPN and he confirmed it.

  17. bingregory says:

    Azlin, if the United Bumiputra Party can have a non-bumi minister (my lips are sealed), UMNO can certainly have a non-Malay member! In Malaysia, all things are possible.

    Bumi status: Note that what Jordan said is true for West Malaysia only. Sarawak and Sabah are a different kettle of fish. My Sarawakian-born kids are not bumiputra in Sarawak. The real question, that I don’t even know how to go about getting an answer for, is whether they are bumi in West Malaysia. In other words, does the ruling follow your place of birth or the jurisdiction in which you happen to be at the time? And is that ruling made at the federal level or at the level of the particular institution doling out the bumi privilege? I’m not the only one who falls into that particular crack: Javanese- and Bugis- descended Malaysians are non-bumiputra in Sarawak as well. One point to illustrate the dilemma: a national university which shall remain anonymous with branches all over the country admits bumiputras only. If you are a Javanese Sarawakian you cannot attend the Sarawakian branch. You also cannot attend branches outside of Sarawak. Is this Federally determined or a policy of the university? God only knows.

  18. Pingback: Bin Gregory Productions » Blog Archive » Good News for Half-Castes

  19. Mel says:

    Dear Jordan, and others following this blog,
    I am a malay woman and my husband is English. Both our daughters (age 6 and 3) were born in London, and since I could not register them in Malaysian High Comm (they were only interested in who their father was and what his nationality was), I had no choice but to get a British passport for both my girls in order to fly to malaysia for our holiday. Now here is my question.

    We are not planning to settle in Malaysia for another 3-4 years. Should I register the children for MyKid anyway? Are my children bumiputeras? Any other advice for my husband or children? We have not registered for anything in Malaysia and are basically clueless!!!

  20. dairy queen fan says:

    Mel:

    It is my understanding that children born to a non-Malaysian father outside of Malaysia cannot obtain Malaysian citizenship for their children. These children will be treated like any other foreigner and need to apply for visitor visa’s and to state permanently must apply for PR which could take 10+ years. For this reason, we made a lot of effort to return to Malaysia to give birth to our children.

    DQF.

  21. kman says:

    Bumi in West Malaysia(Malaya 1957) is not considered to be Bumi in Sarawak/Sabah.This is to protect the small(original) native (Bumi) to not be overswamp by the Malay/bumi from Malaya(west Malaysia) prior to the creation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. as a matter of fact in those day the West Malay citizen need to use their passport to enter Sarawak/Sabah. However Bumi Of Sabah/Sarawak are consider Bumi of All Malaysia, while Bumi of West Malaysia(Malaya) only.

    Having said this it is not much different from the Federation of United stated of America. Prior to 1917 You were consider a citizen of your respected State needing in having a passport(doc) to travel to other States in America. So your were a citizen of your State first and then a citizen Of AMERICA. You have and entitle to many right as stated in the constitution and Cannot be subjected to Federal income

    IN 1917 You now are not consider a citizen of AMERICA but You have now become a Citizen of UNITED STATES and therefore by using the new system you are comply to pay federal income tax. That is the day the America had really Die! Hence the creation of The United Stated Incorporated. And the creation of hawkish and expansive Military empire together with the Fed that controls the United Stated empire(President really have no power, they can be kill / shame ) and the lost of State power and many weird event,for example Kennedy, Apollo, McVeigh(not Macvay ) incident and the recent 911, Katrina and the trillion dollar Bernanke bailout).

    there is a last irony…..the United stated has 50 state in thier flag the last being Texas , Alaska and Hawaii. But in present time there some other stated such as Puerto Rico and….wink wink wink…Canada.

    CANADA Is the 52nd state of the United States of America…..damn those Yankees :)

  22. kukuman says:

    Bumi in West Malaysia(Malaya 1957) is not considered to be Bumi in Sarawak/Sabah.This is to protect the small(original) native (Bumi) to not be overswamp by the Malay/bumi from Malaya(west Malaysia) prior to the creation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. as a matter of fact in those day the West Malay citizen need to use their passport to enter Sarawak/Sabah. However Bumi Of Sabah/Sarawak are consider Bumi of All Malaysia, while Bumi of West Malaysia(Malaya) only.

    Having said this it is not much different from the Federation of United stated of America. Prior to 1917 You were consider a citizen of your respected State needing in having a passport(doc) to travel to other States in America. So your were a citizen of your State first and then a citizen Of AMERICA. You have and entitle to many right as stated in the constitution and Cannot be subjected to Federal income

    IN 1917 You now are not consider a citizen of AMERICA but You have now become a Citizen of UNITED STATES and therefore by using the new system you are comply to pay federal income tax. That is the day the America had really Die! Hence the creation of The United Stated Incorporated. And the creation of hawkish and expansive Military empire together with the Fed that controls the United Stated empire(President really have no power, they can be kill / shame ) and the lost of State power and many weird event,for example Kennedy, Apollo, McVeigh(not Macvay ) incident and the recent 911, Katrina and the trillion dollar Bernanke bailout).

    there is a last irony…..the United stated has 50 state in thier flag the last being Texas , Alaska and Hawaii. But in present time there some other stated such as Puerto Rico and….wink wink wink…Canada.

    CANADA Is the 52nd state of the United States of America…..damn those Yankees :)

  23. Pingback: Dunner's: Understanding Malaysia (II)

  24. John says:

    Hey guys,

    All good stories here. I just got a new from my wife who is in Malaysia now that SHE’s PREGNANT!!! It’s her 1st pregnancy and I’m already nervous with the birth etc. Long story short, I’m a bumi from Sarawak (native Iban) and my wife is a Chinese from West Malaysia. I know that I have some advantage for being a bumi from Sarawak that I don’t have to bring my passport, fill up that visitor form whenever I go visit the west.

    My dillema now is that my wife wants to give birth in west Malaysia (because that’s where her parents is etc). I on the other hand thought that perhaps it would be a good idea for her to give birth in Kuching instead (might have some logistics issue here though as I’m currently overseas). Not quite sure how the birth cert will play out though. Will it follow the father (me) or my wife, or depends on where she deliver the baby etc?

    So my question is, can I allow my wife to give birth in west Malaysia and get a sarawak birth cert for my baby? How does the birth certificate registration works anyway? Can she enrol the birth registration from west Malaysia and forward them to Sarawak for processing, or does she has to give birth physically in Sarawak for the baby to get my bumi status?

    Besides the travel to west Malaysia flaxibility, can someone tell me if there are other advantages worth considering for being a bumi Sarawakian? This is something that I did not research much over the years as I am working and living overseas most of the time.

    Thanks in advance…:-)

    Cheers,
    John

  25. ZAK says:

    I’m “Malay” woman (should probably be “lain-lain”) married to an American. I was told that I can register my son and get a Malaysian birth certificate if we show up in person with our documents at the consulate office in New York. So apparently if the father is Malaysian, the kids can automatically get a Malaysian passport and all paperwork can be filed from wherever you are. However if the mother is Malaysian (and father is not), you must show up in person. Ridiculous but at least there is a way now.

  26. Marbeka says:

    I was born in KL in 1972 and I remember at 12 years old having a blue ID card. I’ve grown up in the UK since I was 15. I live in London, married to a Brit and we have two children both born in the UK. I long to return to Malaysia and start afresh with my family. Does anyone know if I’d encounter problems as I no longer hold a Malaysian passport and have been naturalised as British citizen? I still have siblings in Selangor, they are Malaysians. My grandmother in her 90s, lives in Ipoh and I have many aunts and uncles and other relatives dotted about the peninsular. I have trawled the Malaysian Immigration websites and other government sites for some time but I’m still not sure what I should do. I am an EFL teacher, a graduate with post grad qualifications.

  27. Deb says:

    Marbeka, if you don’t wish to give up your British citizenship, one way would be to apply for the MM2H (Malaysia My 2nd Home) program. The requirements change every now and then, so u might want to look up the latest info on it.

  28. Jane says:

    Hello..good evening I have problem about my new born baby..I’m frm phils..Im bothering with this question in my mind my baby is born here in Penang.my question is the baby can apply a Malaysian here ..he’s a registered already here in Penang and I’m a single mom …is it possible pls give me some advise if you know this …..plsssssss thanks god bless :-)

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