In this text, Nnull recounts how a scan of their birth certificate led them to examine their family’s history in relation to the Malaya British colonial emergency. Through archives, family voices, and their own observation while gender transitioning, they guide us through stories of conflicts and internment.
May 6, 2019 ///
I was recently reacquainted with my birth certificate. This was through a bureaucratic issue at the Malaysian consulate. My national identity card was stolen along with my wallet earlier in the year, and I could not prove my identity when I renewed my passport. My birth certificate was the only alternative proof they would accept. My parents emailed me a scan the next day so that I could proceed in my passport renewal.
I hadn’t seen my birth certificate in about a decade and I was curious about its contents. Unsurprisingly, the document is not very detailed as I had only existed for a few hours at that point. But it contains information about the birth itself: the name of the doctor who oversaw my birth, the name of the clinic and the jurisdiction it was under. It shows basic information about my parents: their names, identity card numbers, citizenship status and race. Additional information was included for each parent: in my father’s case his occupation, and in my mother’s case her age. It mentions the address of the apartment that my parents lived in at the time. And finally, it contains information specifically about me: my name, the date and time of my birth, and my assigned sex.
Since its creation, my birth certificate has dictated how I am characterized in the most basic sense. The document, though basic, began my legal and political existence. It is the piece of evidence that allows me to claim rights by way of inheritance from the country I was born in.
May 6, 1950 ///
The Communities Liaison Committee was established by the British Administration to convene the political elite from Malaya’s “multi-ethnic community” (Malays, Chinese, Europeans, Indians, Ceylonese and Eurasians) to reconcile conflicts of interests between the groups. On May 6, 1950, decades before my arrival, the Committee convened to discuss proposed amendments to the laws that govern Malayan citizenship. The issue at hand was to negotiate what rights to citizenship should be granted to the following line in a birth certificate:
Most of the Chinese population in Malaya had lived there for multiple generations at this point. The Chinese population was assumed to be transient by Malays, so to grant birthright citizenship would only cement their place in Malaya. The stakes of this decision were high as Malaya was in a state of emergency between 1948 and 1960 due to a communist insurgency which fought for independence from the British Empire. 95% of the insurgents were of Chinese descent and the Chinese population were perceived as either terrorists or vulnerable to radicalization. The Chinese had migrated to Malaya in multiple waves for different reasons and the Malayan born Chinese experience was hardly uniform. Some viewed themselves as transients who came to Malaya for economic reasons and had intentions of returning to China, while some intended to stay permanently but did not learn the Malay language. Some others had assimilated to the point that they could not imagine living anywhere else. Many of them were loyal to the Federation of Malaya and the Empire. Conversely, the growing communist movement within the Chinese community posed a threat to British imperialism and the Malay Sultanate.
The United Malays National Organization, the Malayan Chinese Association and the British Empire negotiated between proposals that would ban the Chinese population from citizenship to varying degrees. The committee determined that loyalty to the State was a necessary qualifying factor for the rights to citizenship. At this point the Chinese diaspora possessed Chinese nationality via jus sanguinis and their political allegiance to Malaya was considered questionable. Politically, the Chinese community were caught in between their belonging through either jus soli (to Malaya) or jus sanguinis (to China). Requirements for individuals to forfeit other citizenships, in particular Chinese citizenship, and an Oath of Loyalty were introduced as a measure for prospective Malayan citizens by application to prove their loyalty. The final outcome managed to negotiate a way to be inclusive of the Chinese community, however it was not received well by the Malay political majority.
Members of my family each reacted differently when confronted by this ultimatum of loyalty. My grandfather’s younger brother fled Malaya to China, returning to our ancestral home and reclaiming his Chinese nationality. Two more brothers joined the communist insurgency and hid in the jungles. My grandfather took the Oath of Loyalty, forfeited his Chinese nationality and became a Malayan citizen. Since he lived in an area that was deemed vulnerable to coercion by the communist insurgency, he was resettled by the British colonial forces into an internment camp, known as a New Village or Kampung Baru. My father inherited his father’s oath and was among the first generation to receive birthright citizenship. He was born in an internment camp with presumed loyalty to Malaya. However that loyalty was seen as questionable through his blood relations and the contested territory he was born within. His childhood was spent under military control and surrounded by barbed wire fences to “protect” him from his uncles. Most nights, one of his uncles would slip through the fence to put him to bed while risking being killed if detected. Long after the independence of Malaya, my father’s uncle continued to live in exile, fighting in the second Malayan Emergency (1968-1989) and eventually surrendered to be deradicalized in a “vocational training facility.” The citizenship that my father possessed did not seem comfortable or natural to him. He witnessed citizenship as something which emerged from a conflict started before he was born and the possibility of an alternative slowly disappeared.
May 6, 2019 ///
Looking at it now, my birth certificate seems empty to me. I never lived at the address that was named on it —
I spent the first couple of months of my life at my maternal grandparents’ home. My father was not physically present at my birth as he was abroad, setting up a new life for our family. We moved to Brunei Darussalam, a neighboring country, when I was two months old. I would only visit Malaysia periodically to visit extended family and keep various forms of identification up-to-date. I have lived as a citizen on my native soil for only two months in my entire life.
My parents were never specific about why they left Malaysia, but I could sense that it was out of feeling alienated at home. My family possesses Malay(si)an citizenship, not Malay(si)an nationality. During the negotiations in 1950, it was important to distinguish that Malayan citizenship was “not a nationality, neither could it develop into a nationality.” Nationality was legally defined at the time as a “pre-existing ruler-subject” status, and citizenship as “new state-citizen” status that a person acquires by virtue of territorial and political change. This distinction was clearly made specifically against the naturalized immigrant Chinese and Indian population. Despite successful negotiations to guarantee rights for future generations, we were not seen as subjects in the most sincere sense, but rather a tolerated presence brought about by messy politics. The ‘problem’ of citizenship in Malaya did not exclusively refer to the threat to sovereignty that the Chinese population apparently posed. The economic disparity between Chinese and Malay communities that followed social and economic relations between races set up by British Colonial rule still remained an issue. The racialized landscape of power in Malay(si)a is generally understood as “Malays hold political power and the Chinese hold economic power.” Once Malaya became independent from the British Empire, it would seek to correct that disparity. The New Economic Policy was introduced in 1971 as a means of affirmative action for the bumiputra (referring to the Malay and Indigenous populations of Malaysia), creating a form of second class citizenship for those who are considered non-bumiputra. Though I do appreciate that these policies were motivated by somewhat of a decolonial sentiment; I could also understand that my parents, being born into poverty, felt unjustifiably punished for surviving.
My birth certificate over time became increasingly irrelevant to who I am and became a list of assignments made incorrectly at birth. After having experienced gender dysphoria since childhood, I came out as transgender and began socially transitioning in 2019. Two months after coming out, the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam announced that sodomy (a term often used to designate homosexuality) would become punished with death by stoning. It was unlikely that anyone would be executed under this new penal code; historically few people are convicted of sodomy due to the burden of proof needed to convict being near impossible to reach. Following a mixed domestic reaction and international backlash, a moratorium was placed on the law on my birthday, on May 6, 2019. I was faced by an ultimatum much like the one of my grandfather’s generation: either abandon my desires for self-determination and become loyal to an assigned sexual and gendered regime or live in exile. I chose the latter. This decision was surprisingly an easy one: the racialized nature of citizenship in Brunei made it impossible for me to legally naturalize in the country I lived in since infancy. I was born into an alienation similar to what my parents experienced, never felt at home and was brought up to believe that I would eventually migrate to somewhere else. I already had a head start on my exile.
By the time I came out I was already long removed from Brunei and had been living in the U.K. for almost a decade. My family had decided early on that it would be better for me to pursue education overseas and had saved up as much as they could to enable that. From what I understand now, my family was only part of a larger community of diasporic Malaysians who migrated after having felt alienated in their home country. It seemed that Brunei, which had a similar conception on racial divisions, was only one step of many that my family planned to make to distance ourselves from Malaysia. By studying in the U.K., I would not only be physically distanced from Malaysia, but historically and intellectually distanced as well. I never knew of the events of the Malayan Emergency or my family’s affiliation to the communist insurgency until recently. In fact, I had no knowledge of Malaysian history or politics in general. In my final year at university, just as the historical and intellectual dislocation would become final, I started to become curious about my history. I decided that I would make my final thesis about whispers of mysterious stories I heard throughout my childhood and adolescence. I initially did this as an academic exercise to ensure that I stayed disciplined in my work as I would have to answer to both myself and my family in my research. But also secretly, on a more personal level I wanted to understand why my parents felt compelled to uproot our family and raise my siblings and I to disassociate from our ‘native’ identity. I began my investigation by asking my family to articulate more about these whispers. They recounted stories of my great-grandfather’s life as a local playboy, stories of my grandmother’s childhood rebellion when she infiltrated schools in a time when education was only for boys and their theories of what happened when my late great-aunt ran away with her Malay boyfriend. My father then started mentioning a great-uncle, who he saw on midnights and I saw once at a funeral. My father, before articulating why they only met at midnight and why the crowd at the state mandated Buddhist funeral were all atheists, started to become hesitant.
“I’m worried. Please don’t talk about political issues, I’m afraid that if you talk too much, you’re going to go to jail.”
I could sense that my father was careful with what he said around me. I was spoiled by the apparent freedoms I enjoyed in the U.K. and he probably felt that I was naive to the consequences of expression. For him, the counterinsurgency campaign started in the 1950s never ended. Emergency measures put in place to temporarily address the first communist insurgency between 1948-1960 became enshrined permanently in the law in Malay(si)a. These laws include the Sedition Act of 1948 and the Internal Security Act of 1960. The Sedition Act penalises speech that “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races.” The Internal Security Act was enacted as a replacement of temporary emergency regulations that allow for detention without trial as a preventive measure against an insurgency. Post-Emergency politicians have abused these laws to quell any possibility of political opposition. As a result of these laws my family has always been very careful in what they say and concealed our history from me. At this moment they were fearful that I would be convicted of seditious acts by reconnecting with our past. These were stories meant to be taken to the grave.
As I continued my studies I found out that it was unlikely that I would be penalized under the Sedition Act as the communist insurgency in Malaysia largely died out by the 1980s. Like the penalty for sodomy in Brunei, this law presently functioned as a “preventative measure” and was enforced within the hearts and minds of the people, not so much in courts. It was difficult to coax my family out of that fear. Every testimony from family members had been prefaced with “don’t trust me, you’re better off reading a history book.” An official history of the Emergency was already written. The books said that they were squatters that cultivated land not rightfully owned by them. They were moved into New Villages to protect them from violent communist terrorists. This is who they were officially and they did not feel that they had the right to disagree with this telling of their history regardless of the realities of their lived experiences. My late maternal great-uncle was part of the home guard during the Malayan Emergency. He checked people’s identification cards at the village gates and patrolled the streets in the evenings. If people at the gate did not have an identification card, a document which proved their citizenship and signified that the Oath of Loyalty was taken, he was ordered to kill them. If people returned outside the hours of the curfew, which was determined by how compliant each individual village was and used as a form of collective punishment, he was ordered to kill them. The people he policed were his family and neighbors. He was forced to view them through the lens of their belonging according to the state, not the community. For my family, the New Village was a structure that enclosed those who performed obedience to the Oath of Loyalty that afforded their protection. It also forced them to separate themselves from those who were disobedient.
My family remained in the internment camps dressed up as villages, they behaved, and once they were free, they untethered future generations from this difficult past. They had navigated around the terms of their citizenship via internment camp so that future generations could pursue apparent “greener pastures.” I could understand my family’s frustration when I volunteered to endanger myself by expressing desires to transition:
“We’ve known since you were young. You can keep this to yourself. You don’t have to show it. No one likes people like that.”
“Keep it to yourself” has been the protocol for generations. We don’t do it because we think it’s right. We do it to survive. My family had decided that it was too dangerous to even consider outright disobedience an option. As a parent, my father was the guard at the gate. It was his responsibility to make sure I behaved for my own safety and exterior forces were instructing him to reject me. But it was complicated for him to follow the orders given to him. He always viewed me as his eldest son, while painfully aware that it was dangerous for that to become official. Fearing for my safety should I medically transition, he said:
“You can be a ‘man’ if you want to be. Act like the ‘man’ you want to be. You don’t need to change anything. Prove to everyone you are that ‘man’.”
I had always perceived my father as conservative and misogynistic. But I knew he made an exception for his children. He showed that he understands gender as performative, not anatomical. I can continue to resist what had been assigned to me quietly. I can slip through the barbed wire fence at night so long as no one catches me — he won’t tell on me. It was complicated for my father to openly support people he loved due to their criminality. However his insurgent child slipped through the fence and reunited him with his insurgent uncle. It was cathartic for him to finally be able to speak about his uncle and to know that his memory would be prolonged. My father and I recently visited his childhood home. He gave me a guided tour of this village, situating the stories of our family across generations. I began to construct an archive of these family stories, documenting and preserving whatever articles I could. It had been a long while since I saw him that delighted, peaceful and content.
We perceive babies as tabula rasa: empty vessels to be filled with future experience. My birth certificate was in fact loaded with the experience of past generations. We arrived in the shadow of multiple legacies and inherited our parents’ place. As we grow older, we are convicted of crimes committed at birth for conflicts never fully resolved. I found myself thinking about all the words that stem from the latin root nat (meaning born/birth). The word naivety, suggesting innocence, no longer feels the same. We are assigned qualities that are believed to be innate, be it through our blood or soil. We are assigned whether our presence is natural and embraced as nationals or tolerated as citizens. The only things that remained in my bare birth certificate are the names of myself and my parents. To be honest, that is all I want to be in my birth certificate. ■