Category: The Arts

Rekha Sen

Rekha Sen Prestige Malaysia

For over a decade now Rekha Sen has had to endure a difficult process in trying to secure Malaysian citizenship for her children that has involved making numerous trips, letters and calls to Putrajaya. Her experience is not the exception but the norm for Malaysian women who are married to non-Malaysian men, whose children are born abroad. The experience, however, is quite different if you are a Malaysian man married to a foreigner. In those circumstances, the child is automatically given Malaysian citizenship. 

It is not “discrimination,” Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Mohamed Said stated when asked in Parliament if the government planned to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) Committee’s recommendation to ensure that women have the same rights as men with regard to citizenship, especially in conferring nationality to their children born abroad to foreign spouses. 

According to Cedaw Article 9(2), “state parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children. The deputy minister said that the government had agreed to retain its reservation on Cedaw Article 9(2), adding that it was a “question of security and sovereignty.” 

“I would have preferred a statement telling it like it is,” retorts Sen.

That gender discrimination is openly practised and women are not entitled to the same rights. Why say it any other way?

Rekha Sen

The statement dealt a blow to women already frustrated by an ambiguous process who had hoped for a different response. With no other avenue available to them, six women made the bold decision to file a suit, seeking a declaration that Malaysian women married to foreigners have the right under the Federal Constitution for their overseas-born children to be given Malaysian citizenship. 

“This isn’t a new problem,” says Sen, who is one of the six women. “It has been going on for decades. The women behind the various organisations fighting for equality have exhausted almost every avenue via talks with the government and the media but little change has been made. This is another way to reach out to have our voices heard and hopefully address this.” 

Power and politics, she adds, has unfortunately played a significant role and though each administration may present a different set of rules, no decision has yet been made. 

“As citizens, we bear the brunt,” she states. “This isn’t a new story.” 

The issue, to her, is one that has to do with basic human rights. As a Malaysian, Sen believes it is her right to confer her citizenship to her children. 

“Why shouldn’t it be so?” she asks. “I contribute equally, pay the same taxes as my male counterparts so why am I not extended the same opportunities?” 

She regards it as also being an act of discrimination against the children. Why are some children treated as being more deserving than others? 

“Who gave anyone the right to choose and decide that?” she questions. 

At present, the application process is arbitrary. Three to 10 years appears to be norm and the decision seems to be discretionary. There are no guidelines in place on what requirements are needed for a potential approval nor any explanations for rejection. Sen’s own experience exemplifies this. 

“In my case I received an approval for my eldest but rejections for my younger two. No reasons were given after waiting for an answer for almost five years for my youngest. My middle child was rejected in 2015 and his case is still under appeal.” 

Situations like these have resulted in many families facing numerous challenges that have placed them under duress. Families being separated, children becoming stateless while many don’t have access to health and education as they reside as foreigners in Malaysia are just some examples. 

“Those abroad live with the constant anxiety of not being able to return or not having access to their children in some cases,” she explains. “To add to the complexity, Malaysia doesn’t allow dual citizenship so many abroad have no choice but to eventually give up their Malaysian citizenship in favour of their spouse’s to be with their children.” 

To critics who say that Sen’s children aren’t living in Malaysia and therefore don’t need Malaysian citizenship, her answer is straightforward. 

“It’s an argument I might be able to accept if the men in my position were also required to apply via Article 15(2) for their children born abroad,” she quips. “I would further argue that they have never been given the fair chance to live in Malaysia. As long as they are not granted citizenship, my children will always be considered foreigners in Malaysia. To me and the tens of thousands in my position, Malaysia has closed her doors to us and returning permanently is not an option.” 

The Second Schedule, Part III of Article 15 (2) states that Malaysian women with overseas born children will obtain citizenship by registration for their children. This, however, is said to contradict Article 8 of the Federal Constitution which states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law. 

The suit challenges Article 14 (1)(b), read with the Second Schedule, Part II which allows the passing down of Malaysian citizenship by “operation of law” only if the father is Malaysian. Malaysia is one of 25 countries in the world to still uphold this law and only one of two in Asia. 

The legal process is going to be a long one, she concedes, but she is prepared for arduous journey ahead. 

“There is no time like the present to get the ball rolling and I am in it for the long run,” she states. “The battle for equality will not be an easy one. I am not misdirected with my expectations where timelines and outcomes are concerned but I do believe it will happen.” 

While the goal of the lawsuit is to win, that is only half the battle for Sen. For her, the real win comes when people recognise that they have the power to make a change. 

Collectively our voices can be heard. The fight for human rights and equality isn’t an easy one. What we are really trying to change is mind-sets and this will take time.

Rekha Sen

As our perspectives evolve, she stresses that it is imperative that our culture, laws and systems evolve as well. Change is already happening and the question should no longer be “if” there is change but “when.” 

“We can all choose to take action now and be a part of history that was willing to break barriers and make the changes needed or we can continue to choose to look away and leave it to the next person or the next administration to do the right thing,” she states. “I am hopeful that we can collectively stop seeing the world through a divisive lens. Together, I believe we can make the change we need – for our children, for you, for me, for all of us.” 

Tiara Jacquelina

tiara jacquelina

The word “legend” may be thrown around easily these days, but there’s no doubt that Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina is a true performing arts legend. “You have to be visionary, regardless of what you’re doing, otherwise you wouldn’t stand out. If you’re just doing something that a predecessor has done before, it’d be nothing of substance.” It is precisely this ideology that has led the renowned thespian slash producer to rise above traditions. 

Tiara was always interested in the arts. To her recollection, it was something that was innate within her. “I think I’ve always been like that. Whether it’s a play for school, a performance during Teacher’s Day, I’d always push my classmates to do something that has never been done better. It’s always been a part of me.” 

The famed legend began her career as an actress in 1988. In 1995, Tiara starred with Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, who played the lead role in the movie, Beyond Rangoon. In the 12th Malaysia Film Festival later that year, she won the Best Actress Award for her role in the film Ringgit Kasorrga. However, despite finding success as an actress, Tiara wasn’t entirely happy with her predicament at the time. “I’ve been acting for the longest time, and I wasn’t quite happy with how things were.”  

Tiara explained it was the less than ideal state of the entertainment industry at the time that prompted her to make the leap to be a producer. “I get really annoyed when people are ‘cincai’ about their work. As an actress, you’re the most helpless person in the entire chain.” Determined to make a change, Tiara felt that there were limitations in what she can do as an actress.

If the producer or the director doesn’t care for the craft, you end up becoming the only person who tries to do the best you can in a system that doesn’t appreciate your effort.

Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina

In 2004, she made her debut as a producer in Puteri Gunung Ledang, in which she also starred as the lead actress. Released to immense critical and commercial success, the film’s incredible success gained Tiara soaring recognition due to her stellar performance as Gusti Putri. “I felt that that story had the potential to be something really special.” said Tiara when she was asked about what prompted her to pursue the project as a producer. 

In addition to being a multi award- winning actress, film producer, musical producer, Tiara is also the founder of Enfiniti (M). Since its inception, Enfiniti has made a name for itself by housing some of the most critically acclaimed projects in Malaysia history, including Ola Bola The Musical and Mud The Musical. 

“With Ola Bola The Musical, I told my team that we are all ambassadors of unity in Malaysia. The big picture is that we are advocating unity to millions of Malaysians.” Regarding Ola Bola The Musical, Tiara believes that it is extremely crucial that the team understands that the project is beyond dancing footballers, but something more. “If any of you don’t believe that we are telling a story that inspires unity, then you shouldn’t be on the team.You have to be visionary, regardless of what you’re doing, otherwise you wouldn’t stand out.

Today, Tiara continues her role is the “chief dream maker” of performing arts company Enfiniti and the founder of Tiarasa, a luxury glamping resort in Janda Baik. Tiara is also the recipient of Prestige achievement award in 2015. 

Datuk Dr. Faridah Merican

Faridah Merican

Often regarded as the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre, Datuk Faridah Merican has dedicated her life to cultivating Malaysian theatre in the hopes of showcasing local talents to the world. She co-founded both KLPAC and Performing Arts Centre of Penang (PenangPAC) alongside artistic director and husband, Joe Hasham in 2003 and 2011 respectively. For more than five decades, Faridah is considered a pioneer of the Malaysian theatre industry. 

Her passion for theatre was instilled in her from a young age, and her influence stemmed from watching regular stagings of bangsawan and Chinese opera. Before she became Malaysian Theatre’s First Lady, Faridah was a school teacher, newsreader and radio talk show host. 

“I wanted to become a PE teacher, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t a university graduate, but I did become a primary school teacher. I’ve come to realise that primary school teachers are probably some of the most important people in the education field, because they are the people who lay the foundation for the children.” 

When TV Malaysia found its footing in 1963, Faridah, who was already doing freelance radio work, felt that it was the right time to move on to the next chapter of her life. “After being in radio, TV was like a very natural step to take next. And when it came knocking on my door, I left my job as a teacher. The salary then was ridiculously low. But life then was easy, so the small salary didn’t quite matter. So I became a freelance broadcaster for both radio and TV.” 

Upon reflecting on an era where gender equality wasn’t a priority, Faridah was never shaken by it. “I think because I’m not the kind of person who was actively looking on whether there’s discrimination in my life or not, be it in my personal or professional life.” The doyenne in Malaysian theatre thinks that it’s because she never wavered from her focus in life. 

The arts in Malaysia are still growing, struggling, and looking for ways to do better and be greater—not necessarily to compete with our neighbours, but to express our stories, Malaysian stories. 

Datuk Faridah Merican

“Because I’ve always enjoyed what I do. I enjoyed being a teacher; I enjoyed very much being in the broadcasting industry; I enjoyed being in the advertising industry. My philosophy in life is that if you do not enjoy yourself in doing what you do, you might as well not do it. You always have a choice, you can focus on the negatives, but it may not take you where you want to be.” 

When asked on whether she’s satisfied with the local performing arts scene’s current state, the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre thinks that we could do better. “The arts in Malaysia are still growing, struggling, and looking for ways to do better and be greater. Not necessarily to compete with our neighbours, but to express our stories, Malaysian stories.” To her, it is absolutely vital that the stories of Malaysia get recognised. “It is our image that we want to put forward and show to the world. Unless and until we are happy to say that we are happy being recognised, we have not been recognised.” 

Despite boasting an illustrious legacy, Faridah thinks that it is absolutely important that she stays motivated and passionate in whatever that she does. “I believe that perhaps I should tell myself over and over again; I must continue to do what I believe in, I must improve my skills, I must try to pass down whatever little knowledge I have to the next generation.” 

(Photo credit: KLPAC)