On the 1948-1960 State of Emergency in Colonized Malaya and the Emptiness of My Birth Certificate

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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.

Article published in The Funambulist 29 (May-June 2020) States of Emergency. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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:

Nnull Funambulist (6)

Race: CHINESE

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.