The news of baby snatching cases at the Lahad Datu Hospital in Sabah has attracted much attention from Malaysians who are shocked and appalled at the misfortune of the Bajau Laut mothers who had their babies forcibly taken from them.
The Malaysiakini article that exposed baby snatching cases happening in Sabah has been met with a blanket denial by the Sabah Health Department, and a police report was lodged by the Department.
The article delves into the systemic problems plaguing the Bajau Laut community in Sabah, and how statelessness and child marriages have greatly affected the “ownership” of a newborn.
The report claims that a child protection officer has processed the adoption application and the Magistrate’s Court granted the adoptive parents custody of a Bajau Laut woman, Aimah’s baby, all within a week.
In Malaysia, it is common knowledge that adoptive parents have to wait for years before successfully completing the entire vetting process set by the Welfare Department or Social Welfare Department (JKM), in addition to court procedures.
One week to process and approve an application and the subsequent ‘delivery’ of the baby into the hands of adoptive parents is surprising, to say the least.
Two particular cases stand out, whereby the village head of Kampung Panji, Fandry Alsao, has claimed that his intervention and assistance in the cases of two Bajau Laut mothers in filing a counterclaim to the Child Protection Officer has prevented two babies from being wrongfully handed over to adoptive parents.
The same Child Protection Officer claimed that these babies were taken away from their mothers because they were “neglected”, and in the cases of Aimah, Sarlina Aswan, and Felindaya, the mothers were told to go home while their babies recuperated.
One of them who heard that adoption papers were being prepared took her baby and rushed home, not completing her post-delivery treatment.
It is clear from the report that child brides exist and child marriages take place within the Bajau Laut community. Because most are undocumented, some have been detained by the Immigration Department for not having their identity papers.
In 2020, a 16-year-old Bajau Laut mother committed suicide with her 5-month-old baby at the Lahad Datu Hospital after she was told she could lose custody of her baby. Surely something so tragic like this could have been prevented.
In addition, the Bajau Laut, who are mostly stateless, although the Sabah state government recognises them as indigenous people, still have to pay the usual foreigner’s rate, which is RM100 for upfront registration and RM120 for outpatient treatment.
The report also stated that the hospital is strict about the payment and will normally insist on it. In this case, an admission into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) would easily cost RM10,000 to RM50,000 for Felindaya. The bill has not been settled, and it is unsure if payments were made or not.
Who is benefitting from this? Is the paperwork complete? Have the mothers consented to their babies being given up for adoption?
If not, who cleared the adoption papers? Who made payment for the exorbitant amounts for treatment for these mothers?
There are many questions when it comes to baby snatching incidents, including citizenship issues, maternal health care, child marriages, adoption processes, access to information, and the rights of the Bajau Laut.
Undeniably, the answer to all the allegations in the report lie in the independent investigations that I hope will be carried out by three ministries, namely the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, who are the custodians of the Bajau Laut. The findings should be widely shared.
These problems may have begun under the previous administrations, but they must end under the Madani government, keeping in mind human dignity, the right to life, freedom, justice, and the rule of law.
Teresa Kok is the vice chairperson of DAP and Member of Parliament for Seputeh.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.