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There is an excellent TV documentary called “Causes of the Arab Spring” by Hernando de Soto. In it, de Soto describes what happens when the state’s institutions exclude people from legitimate economic opportunity. He shows how, when people can’t properly obtain permits for their small market stalls, they become open to exploitation by corrupt officials; unless a bribe is paid, they could be moved on, shut down or, worse, have their goods taken from them. Exploited by everyone, unable to get proper permits and as a result unable to seek a remedy in the courts -- one of the principles of the Rule of Law. If people are excluded from the opportunity to legitimate economic participation, they are excluded from the protection of the Rule of Law.
Most modern societies interact with state institutions in many ways: education, healthcare, employment, land, resources and citizenship itself. Demonstrating nationality is often a crucial requirement to access services and even rights. What happens if you don’t have a nationality? What happens if you do not officially “exist” to the institutions that provide government services? Often it leaves such a person open to exploitation. At the very least, it leaves them outside of the Rule of Law.
All around the world, entire families, often spanning generations, are stateless and undocumented. Those who are unable to prove their nationality pass on their “status” to their children, and so on. Of the Billions of people in the world, an estimated 10 million are stateless, half of whom are children. A staggering 800,000 persons are estimated to be undocumented in Sabah, east Malaysia.
Our Malaysian LexisNexis team, led by the indomitable Gaythri Raman, undertook an amazing adventure as part of a project to allow access to citizenship, and therefore state institutions, for remote people. We often talk of the “umbrella protection” of the Rule of Law. In a land of monsoons, this project is more than metaphorical!
Gaythri and team went with the former Chief Justice of Malaysia to Kampung Matanggal, a village nestled in the dense Malaysian jungle. As you can see from the photo, the only road in is a trail of cracked tarmac snaking through steamy jungle. Such travel is a luxury available only to city dwellers. But the city is where the government offices, financial institutions, court rooms, health care, education, and jobs are. The city is where you must go to be registered as a Malaysian citizen… if you can get there.
Gaythri’s expedition consisted of a hundred vehicles and included magistrates, lawyers, medical officers, government officials, as well as the former Chief Justice, escorted by security personnel and the police. The project is the “Mobile Courts of East Malaysia” and its mission is to bring as many people under the protection of the Rule Of Law as possible by registering those who are stateless as citizens of Malaysia.
After a seven-hour journey, they set up camp. Yes, I mean “camp”…. as in “tent!” Yes, I mean tent as in “tent in the middle of the jungle.”
At dawn, thankful at not having been drenched by a major monsoon, they sprang into action; setting up makeshift law offices and court chambers. The registration department took up residence in the small hall covered with a tin roof and powered by a small generator. A lively crowd had already formed. Some had arrived the night before to try to ensure their chance of being helped.
Court officers directed the applicants to the correct departments. Documents were aflutter everywhere! Birth certificates, marriage certificates, clinic health reports – mere scraps of paper that wield so much power, and opportunity, over human lives. Nothing seems to convey authority as much as an official stamp!
220 hopefuls had registered and were waiting to be attended by the administrative conveyor belt – a microcosm of the state machinery housed in tents – that had sprung up in their steamy, remote corner of the world. They are assigned to a pro bono lawyer to assist with their paperwork.
Once paperwork is in order, they appeared before the judge who, in the full dignity of his high office, was perched on a wobbly plastic chair.
“Our job as judges,” said the former Chief Justice of Malaysia, “is to ensure that everyone, no matter whether you are rich or poor or from the interior or the urban areas, shall enjoy the rights afforded by the Constitution of Malaysia – rights that most of us take for granted.” After forms, and stamps and approvals, the applicants proceed to the little booth run by the National Registration Department to get their picture taken and to obtain their official certificate. They now officially exist!
Another wonderful example of how, with a bit of initiative, deploying core skills, working with partners we can (one document stamp at a time) bring ever more people under the protection of the Rule of Law. The Mission of LexisNexis takes another step forward.