The challenges faced by Malaysian bi-national families as a result of the difficulty in accessing Malaysian legal status has been further exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A story of lived realities
during the pandemic
”“I am 8-months pregnant, living with senior citizen parents while caring for my elder son. I’m delivering soon and my spouse is not able to be here with me. I don’t even know who is going to drive me to the hospital in case of an emergency during the lockdown.”
”“My husband left to visit his father in March who was diagnosed with cancer and has been stranded overseas ever since. I am heavily pregnant, working fulltime from home, caring for our 18-month old daughter while home-schooling my 8-year old son, all with little or no support available. I am due in July and there needs to be someone to look after my children when I enter confinement.”
These were some of the direct quotes from Malaysian women whose non-citizen spouses were experiencing family separation during the first lockdown in Malaysia when non-citizen spouses and children of Malaysians were not allowed to enter the country. This story was not unique to these two women as hundreds in the Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG) network were stranded overseas.
During this time, some affected persons had to undergo heightened precarity and vulnerability, such as spouses who were stranded in third countries, some of whom lost their jobs during the lockdown and were reported to be living off charity from friends or sleeping on floors although they have a family and home in Malaysia. Like in the case of Adam*, who had just undergone heart surgery and was not allowed entry to Malaysia and had to spend nights on his friend’s office floor.
As quoted above, many women were disproportionately impacted including Malaysian women who had to undergo pregnancy alone in the country while faced with an unfair burden of care, as well as Malaysian women overseas who were unable to return to deliver their children in Malaysia, thus compromising the chances of their children securing Malaysian citizenship.
Similarly, non-citizen spouses of Malaysian men overseas were also faced with the inability to return to Malaysia to deliver, some of whom were found raising their new-born babies and undergoing postpartum in hotel rooms in third countries. FSSG would receive calls past midnight from pregnant women or new mothers indicating their suicidal thoughts as a result of postpartum depression.
Due to the lack of transparent and readily available information, there was a significant increase in the number of queries from frantic Malaysian transnational families. True gratification was being able to share relevant information with the affected communities and watching approvals of entry come in gradually.
The most significant change brought about by the advocacy was to the lives of many who were finally able to reunite with their families in Malaysia. Below are some of the message received by FSSG from those affected:
“I cannot express enough my gratitude to the team that supports us Malaysians with foreign spouses. Just having someone in the know to advise us gives us better mental health especially in these stressful times of COVID-19.”
– A Malaysian spouse married to a foreign spouse who was stranded overseas
“Thank you for your great effort to ease our anxiety. Even though I haven’t received my acknowledgement yet, it is a great feeling to know that I am not alone in the group (that FSSG created). It puts a smile on my face every time someone else gets an approval. I know my day will come.”
– A Malaysian spouse while awaiting the return of her foreign spouse. Her spouse has since returned
“I wouldn’t be back in Malaysia with my family if it wasn’t for your guidance on how to apply for entry approval for a foreign spouse.”
– A foreign spouse of a Malaysian who was stranded overseas
Similarly, non-citizen spouses and children were put in a precarious and vulnerable situation when many of them were being asked to leave the country during the pandemic to renew or apply for their visas. It used to be a common practice during regular times for them to be asked to go for a “visa run” to a neighbouring country to enable the renewal or extension of their visas. This, however, put many in shock as they were asked to leave during a pandemic despite border closures, high cost of airfare and quarantine, and most importantly, the potential inability for them to re-enter Malaysia. Here are some quotes from those affected:
”“I am currently breastfeeding my 8-months old baby who holds Malaysian citizenship. I am Singaporean and my Social Visit Pass (SVP) has expired. What do I do if they ask me to leave the country?”A foreign spouse of a Malaysian man
”"My wife is currently undergoing treatment for uterine cancer and I need to be here for her. I need to be able to apply for an LTSVP or at least have my visa renewed (without leaving the country)."A foreign spouse of a Malaysian woman
”“My Malaysian wife just passed away last year and I am now caring for three of our children who all hold Malaysian citizenship. I am Singaporean and am holding an SVP. I need to apply for an LTSVP so I can remain in the country and care for my children. If I am being asked to leave the country (to enable the application) and not allowed back in (during the lockdown), who will care for my children?”A foreign spouse whose Malaysian spouse has passed away