Stateless residents fight for sense of belonging in Brunei

Updated: 2013-12-19 08:28

By Zhao Shengnan in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei (China Daily USA)

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There is a special group of ethnic Chinese in Brunei: they were born and raised in the country; they are well-off, well-educated and enjoy social status. They also love the country.

However, what is printed in the "nationality" column of their passport is not "Brunei". It once read "stateless" but now declares "permanent resident".

Lim Boon Hwa, 65, is one of the hundreds of thousands of these residents but he played a leading role, with others, in getting "stateless" removed.

"We held British passports under Britain's colonization. Then after independence, we became stateless. Why have things become worse?" asked Lim, vice-president of the Brunei-China Friendship Association and a businessman.

In Brunei, a multi-ethnic former British colony in Southeast Asia, citizenship, along with a range of rights and social welfare, is not granted automatically to everyone born within its borders, but is determined by ethnic descent.

After independence in 1984, only about 9,000 ethnic Chinese were given full Brunei citizenship. The others, about 20,000, like Lim, lost their nationality.

"I had to have a visa when going in or out of my own country, and whenever I went through customs abroad, I had to prove, with a lot of cash in hand, that I was not a refugee," he said.

Citizenship could be obtained if applicants had resided in the country for 25 consecutive years, and met language and cultural qualifications. But the complicated Malay language exam, which apparently required a detailed knowledge of the terms for local plants and animals, led many Chinese to emigrate.

Stateless residents fight for sense of belonging in Brunei

"This was a loss for Brunei. Many of the emigrants were skilled technicians who worked for Brunei's oil industry for decades," said Lim.

Lim failed the exam twice and thought of moving to Australia. But he eventually decided to stay and try to change the system, which only allowed 200 people to take the exam every year.

"We respect the Constitution. But the exam's purpose should be to invite those who are qualified to be citizens, instead of going against them. I wouldn't have passed it even if I tried a hundred times; or, I would have passed away before I got it," he said.

After discussions with the Chinese community, Lim and two others prepared a memorandum for Brunei's government, suggesting it narrow the scope of the exam and increase the number of times people could sit it.

"Some people said it was not a good idea saying 'no' to the government, but I think we had to make them aware of our predicament," said Lim, who could recall every detail of the preparation process.

"The lucky thing was that Brunei's government encouraged improvement if you managed to prove something was flawed," he said.

Lim did it. Reform of the nationality law, passed in the early 2000s, allows stateless persons over the age of 50 to acquire citizenship by passing an oral, rather than a written, nationality test. Every test now allows 1,000 people to sit it.

But because of a strong background in education, Lim was excluded from the oral test, while others gained from his hard work.

(China Daily USA 12/19/2013 page6)