Citizenship law was first implemented in several Malaysian states before the country achieved independence and sovereignty. The Straits Settlements, consisting of Penang, Malacca, Singapore and later Labuan, was the first entity to introduce nationality laws in the region. The Naturalization Act of 1867 stated that:
any person, whilst actually residing in the Colony, may present a memorial to the Governor in Council, praying that the privileges of naturalisation may be conferred upon him.
It also provided that:
such memorial shall state to the best of the knowledge and belief of the memorialist, his age, place of birth, place of residence, profession, trade or occupation, the length of time during which he has resided within the Colony, that he is permanently settled in the Colony, or is residing within the same, with attempt to settle therein.
The criteria to be a Malaysian citizen are:Every person born before Malaysia Day (16 September 1963) who is a citizen of the Malaysia by virtue of these provisions
Every person born on or after Malaysia Day, and having any of the qualifications specified below
- Every person who immediately before Merdeka Day 1957 (31 August), was a citizen of Malaysia by virtue of any of the provisions of the Federation of Malaya Agreement, 1948, whether by operation of law or otherwise
- Every person born within Malaysia on or after Merdeka Day and before October 1962
- Every person born within Malaysia after September 1962, of whose, at least, one parent was at the time of the birth either a citizen or a permanent resident in Malaysia, or who was not born a citizen of any other country
- Every person born outside Malaysia on or after Merdeka Day whose father was a citizen at the time of his birth and either was born in Malaysia or was at the time of the birth in service under the Government of Malaysia or of a State
- Every person born outside Malaysia on or after Merdeka Day whose father was a citizen at the time of the birth if the birth was, or is, within 1 year of its occurrence or within such longer period as in any particular case was or is allowed by the Malaysian Government, registered at a consulate of Malaysia or, if it occurred in Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei or North Borneo, registered with the Federal Government
- Every person born within Malaysia of whose parents one at least is at the time of the birth either a citizen or permanently resident in Malaysia and
- Every person born outside Malaysia whose father is at the time of the birth a citizen and either was born in Malaysia or is at the time of the birth in the service of the Federation or of a State and
- Every person born outside Malaysia whose father is at the time of the birth a citizen and whose birth is, within 1 year of its occurrence or within such longer period as the Malaysian Government may in any particular case allow, registered at a consulate of Malaysia or, if it occurs in Brunei or in a territory prescribed for this purpose by order of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, registered with the Malaysian Government and
- Every person born in Singapore of whose parents one at least is at the time of the birth a citizen and who is not born citizen otherwise than by virtue of this paragraph and
- Every person born within Malaysia who is not born a citizen of any country otherwise than by virtue of this paragraph
A person can become a citizen of Malaysia either by registration or naturalisation. In cases by registration, where a person is by operation of law is a citizen but have yet to be registered, such person is entitled to citizenship upon application and be registered as a citizen of Malaysia. For cases by naturalisation, this refers to the process of admitting a person not a citizen of Malaysia to citizenship. This is subjected to the requirements and conditions of the Federal Government. Any person holding Malaysian citizenship is also disallowed to hold any other country's citizenship. Malaysia does not allow dual citizenship.
Those applying for citizenship by registration must have "an elementary knowledge of the Malay language". Those applying to become naturalised citizens must have "an adequate knowledge of the Malay language" and have resided in the country for ten of the past twelve years, including the twelve months immediately preceding the application. These requirements are set out by Part III of the Constitution; however, as there is no objective definition of what constitutes elementary or adequate knowledge of Malay, in practice, the tests are often subjective, sometimes even varying in whether a written knowledge of Malay is required.
Permanent residency in the states of Sabah and Sarawak are distinct from the other 11 Malaysian states. While Sabah and Sarawak each has autonomy in immigration affairs (which includes imposing immigration restrictions on Peninsular Malaysia residents), permanent residents of Sabah and Sarawak are exempted from the immigration controls of their own states. A Malaysian citizen born to a Sabah or Sarawak permanent resident would have Sabah or Sarawak permanent residency, regardless of where the person was born. Birth in Sabah or Sarawak alone does not make a person a permanent resident unless one of his/her parents is a permanent resident. A person may become a Sabah or Sarawak permanent resident by obtaining Permanent Residence (PR) status issued by the respective state immigration departments. The permanent residency status of a person is indicated by a letter on his/her MyKad below the photo, with H for Sabahans, K for Sarawakians, and none for Peninsular Malaysians. A similar scheme is also used in Malaysian passports, differentiated by the letter prefix of the passport number:H for Sabahans, K for Sarawakians, and A for Peninsular Malaysians.
All Malaysian citizens are Commonwealth citizens and are entitled to certain rights in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. For example, they can vote in all elections (including for the European Parliament), hold public office and serve on juries in the UK. Malaysians are entitled to consular assistance from British embassies in non-Commonwealth countries without a Malaysian representative.
These rights include:the right, unless otherwise disqualified (e.g. imprisoned), to vote in all elections (i.e., parliamentary, local and European elections) as long as they have registered to vote (they must possess valid leave to enter/remain or not require such leave on the date of their electoral registration application)
the right, unless otherwise disqualified, to stand for election to the British House of Commons as long as they possess indefinite leave to remain or do not require leave under the Immigration Act 1971 (c. 77) to enter or remain in the UK
the right, if a qualifying peer or bishop, to sit in the House of Lords
eligibility to hold public office (e.g., as a judge, magistrate, minister, police constable, member of the armed forces, etc.)
Several early independence acts did not contain any provision for the loss of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies by citizens of the newly independent states. A notable case is that of the former Settlements (colonies) of Penang and Malacca in what is now Malaysia. These were combined in 1948 with the nine Malay states (which were protected states rather than colonies) to form the Federation of Malaya. On independence on 31 August 1957, British protected persons (BPP) from the Malay states lost their BPP status. However, as a result of representations made by the Straits Chinese, known as the "Queen's Chinese", it was agreed by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Malaya that no provision should be made for the withdrawal of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC) status from the inhabitants of Penang and Malacca, who would consequently be allowed to remain CUKCs as well as citizens of Malaya.
On 16 September 1963, the colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore were joined with Malaya to form Malaysia (Singapore subsequently left Malaysia in 1965). CUKC was withdrawn from those acquiring Malaysian citizenship in 1963, but this did not affect existing citizens of the Federation.
Hence, persons connected with Penang and Malacca prior to 31 August 1957, together with those born before 1983 in legitimate descent to fathers so connected, form the largest group of British Overseas citizens (estimated at over 1 million). Most also hold Malaysian citizenship.
In 2016, Malaysian citizens had visa-free or visa on arrival access to 164 countries and territories, ranking the Malaysian passport 12th in the world according to the Visa Restrictions Index.