A mother's woes over an alien daughter

Let's just say that I've been saddled with more than the usual dose of new-parent stress: My five-month-old daughter is an alien - a resident alien, that is.

She is stateless.

If her status (or lack thereof) sticks, the poor girl will likely be unable to get hitched, open a bank account, vote or even get a cellphone.

And with no passport, travelling would be out of the question.

If she insists on skipping town, say, to Malaysia, chances are that she would be stuck in limbo. The Causeway could become her new home, like Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's 2004 movie The Terminal, in which the actor plays a man trapped in an airport in New York City.

Good thing it's near enough for us to visit during Chinese New Year or to pass her a toothbrush. And maybe she could sell bottled water to motorists stuck in traffic. Some kids have it easier than others.

A child born to a Japanese mother and an Irish father in the United States, for instance, is entitled to three nationalities. And those born in places such as Canada and Brazil are automatic citizens based on jus soli (right of the soil in Latin).

But unfortunates like my daughter, who was born here, are entitled to zilch, apart from long queues at the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA). How can that be, you ask. I was flabbergasted myself.

The nationality of my children was the last thing on my mind when I fell in love and got married. Being a professional in a developed country, having a stateless child was something I never anticipated.

It was a Third World problem, I thought, the unfortunate plight of marginalised Rohingya Muslims and Bedouin desert folk.

International partnerships are also common here, with Singapore's large expatriate community. My husband and I had never heard of anyone else being struck with such a malaise.

So, of course, we were - the result of an unhappy confluence of factors and a dose of Murphy's law.

My husband is Canadian, but was born here. His parents immigrated to Singapore in 1964.

Despite having lived and worked in most of the major Canadian cities from age 18 to 30, where he also taught and counselled Cree people in the frigid north, he cannot pass on his citizenship to our daughter.

Laws were changed in 2009 to limit nationality to just one generation born abroad. So, with a single tweak in legislation, he was deemed to have not contributed to Canada enough for his daughter to be Canadian.

My Singaporean parents, on the other hand, moved to the United States when my dad was awarded a government scholarship for a master's degree.

My father studied hard, but worked hard at other things as well. I emerged into the world, kicking, screaming and American during his year-end examinations.

Including my time in the United States as a university student, I've lived there for a grand total of four years - one short of what is necessary to transfer citizenship to my daughter. I, too, had not contributed enough to America.

My daughter is not Singaporean either because the Republic, like Switzerland and much of the European Union, does not practise jus soli.

To legalise her stay here, I haul my crying baby to the ICA once a month to renew her special pass.

Each time, I tell staff at the counter that we are still struggling to secure a nationality for her.

I wait with bated breath as they fish out the rubber stamp, wondering what would happen if we are not given another month's grace.

We received good news recently: The Singapore citizenship that I applied for before I knew I was pregnant has been approved, in principle.

This is likely to mean light at the end of the tunnel for my daughter.

But others are not as lucky.

Experts at the first global forum on statelessness last month estimated that 10 million people around the world are stateless.

Many of these people have been denied citizenship despite having spent their entire lives in the only country they call home.

Without identification, they struggle to get access to housing, education and health care, and are rarely able to gain a foothold in the legal job market.

On the other hand, there seems to be a creeping culture of entitlement among citizens here.

Perks such as baby bonuses, paid maternity leave, subsidised housing and education are taken for granted by some as basic lifelong dues to a citizen.

But do such Singaporeans ask themselves what they have done apart from being born here to Singaporean parents? How have they made their country a better place to live in for all? How have they earned their right to be here?

Like my grandparents of the pioneer generation, and new citizens who have become Singaporean through hard work and perseverance, I too was (somehow through my contributions to society here) deemed worthy of the citizenship title - one that I must work persistently to upkeep.

Through me, my daughter too will likely be automatically granted the nationality - like most Singaporeans here. But she has yet to truly earn it.

I hope she will one day.


This article was first published on Oct 26, 2014.
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