When Sheila Rahman Natarajan first noticed the five Ee siblings walking on the street and playing at the playground in early 2017, her first thought was, “Why are they not in school?” Whenever she and her neighbours tried to approach them, they would run away.
Bit by bit, Sheila coaxed their story out from the eldest child, Ting Sang, then 11-plus and washing dishes at a nearby eatery to earn pocket money.
Their foreign mother had upped and abandoned the family in 2016, leaving the brood with their Malaysian father, Ee Sun Seng, a daily-wage tractor driver who did not complete lower secondary vernacular school. He had not registered his children’s births. Sheila later learnt that all the children were stateless because their parents were not legally married.
The parents had cocooned them in an upstairs room at Ee’s parents’ house nearby, where they cooked meals, ate and slept in near-silence, ostracised by his family living below. “They thought they were protecting their children. It was a state of ignorance, even for me and many others on stateless rules,” says Sheila, a journalist for 23 years before retiring in 2000 as editor of the now-defunct Sunday Mail to spend more time with her three teenagers.
“The children didn’t know their real names or birthdays. Their mother is untraceable and their father was reclusive and depressed.” Without any hesitation, she and her husband Abdul Rahman Ishak, a former Petronas engineer, together with four neighbours, decided to do all they could to help them.
“No second thoughts whatsoever,” she recalls. “Our family home just up the road was convenient. Since Rahman and I are retirees in our early 60s, we had the time and space to assist in the kids’ welfare and upbringing. They would be under our watchful eyes while their father was at work, instead of roaming the streets.”
Convincing Ee of their intentions and gaining his cooperation and consent required “diplomacy and jagahati reassurances as he takut anak hilang”.
“This cocooned family is a strange phenomenon but you have parents who confine their children to protect them from the outside world because they are loved,” says Sheila, who is reminded of Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack. The 2015 documentary film is about seven siblings locked up by their father in a New York City apartment, away from the “nefarious” streets, and home-schooled by their mother.
Helping the Ee offspring understand what is happening and gaining their trust had its challenges too. Ting Sang is now 18, Si May 16, Ting Fok 15, Ting Kat 14 and Ting Choi, 11.
“Initially, they were like a wolfpack. Always together and confined to a room. They couldn’t sit in the living room in the house or use the kitchen. They didn’t grow up as normal kids. Very silent...”
How she took them under her wing and the changes that have transformed their lives over the last six years give hope to stateless children. Her ongoing efforts also won her the National Press Club (NPC)-Macrokiosk’s Muhibbah Award.
Sheila is the October and final winner of the monthly series of awards launched in April by NPC and Macrokiosk, an enterprise solutions platform provider, to recognise individuals, groups or organisations that exemplify the true spirit of muhibbah in the country. Dignity for Children Foundation won in June, and the Taiping Soup Kitchen and Gudwara Sahib Taiping, in July.
The Rahman’s Pondok in Bandar Menjalara, Kuala Lumpur, is “a corner lot pretending to be a bungalow”, Sheila quips. Anyone is welcome to just lepak with family and friends, any time. It has become the children’s second home.
Wanting them to learn the meaning of belonging and ownership, Sheila started with their Malaysian-Chinese amalgamation names chosen by Ee, who speaks to them in Malay. Ting means heavenly grace; Sang is prosper; May, beautiful; Fok, good fortune; Kat, rich luck; and Choi, highly placed.
The children do not talk about their mother and, “to minimise any negative or guilt feelings, are assured that she has her own journey, as we all have. For various adult reasons that have nothing to do with any of us, I have told them, their mother left”.
Sheila enjoys planning activities and programmes for the siblings, always with their father’s permission. Sang and May, both born at local medical centres, moved in to stay with the Rahmans in 2019 and 2020 respectively. “I had to sleep in the same room on the floor until May felt secure on her own.” The other three, home-delivered, drop by after school or dinner daily, and sleep over during the weekends and school holidays.
There are daily chores for each — feed the cats, put away the plates and cutlery, sweep the garden, vacuum the living areas, check the letterbox — besides cooking lunch together, watching TV, gaming and doing schoolwork.
In 2020, all five were given places at the Dignity for Children Foundation in Sentul that provides care and education for urban poor children in KL. “It’s a fantastic school that helps me monitor as well as bring up the kids.”
Sang never went to school until joining Dignity, where he found all his friends knew how to read and speak in English. “Only me, like blur, blur,” he says.
But Sheila has noticed he is a leader in his own way — “You can see that in the way he talks” — and, true enough, he was elected class monitor. Sang’s boss obviously saw something, too. “When the warong did not have enough staff, he asked me to be a waiter,” the teenager says.
ABCs and vocational sessions aside, “we went through the process of talking about feelings and our senses, the social emotional learning. We’ve had our issues and our children are counselled by their teachers and their school’s well-being professionals whenever necessary. Choi enjoys art therapy.
“Children can pick up body language, vibes and tones of speech. It is important that while they are highly adaptable, no one should lose their individuality. Each one’s choices and talent must be honed,” Sheila says.
From the get-go, the Menjalara aunties and uncles set out to document the siblings. In 2018, they wrote in to their Segambut Member of Parliament Hannah Yeoh, then deputy minister of women, family and community development. A welfare department (JKM) case-worker met Ee and secured legal guardianship of the children for him in 2019. After a two-year mandatory requirement, applications were made for their birth certificates in 2021.
“When I picked up the certificates, I cried because it showed ‘Tiada Warga Negara’, meaning stateless. The mother’s name was there, but Ee was listed as Informant. We had given all the required information, or so we thought.”
Our citizenship laws are based on and governed by a legal marriage certificate, Sheila explains. So Ee had to de facto adopt his children in 2022, a prerequisite for citizenship application forms, before finally submitting the documents in July last year.
By law, if a man is unwed, even though he is Malaysian, as his parents are, his children are not automatically given citizenship. Mothers, foreign and local, pass on this citizenship right to their children born in Malaysia, even if they are unwed, have abandoned them, or are untraceable.
“Most fathers and individuals don’t dare to say anything because this is the imposed law. They’re scared, and ashamed, especially the men responsible because of their illicit relationship.
“Statelessness cripples children mentally and older individuals terribly. No IC, no life... It’s a handicapped existence. Our family is steeling our nurture children to brave whatever the future holds. We will persevere and never lose faith in our hopes and dreams,” Sheila says.
So, it is back to waiting for the brood, who are growing in confidence and look like they can tackle whatever comes next, after what they have been through.
Meanwhile, five hungry children can add up to hefty food bills. Is anyone helping with their expenses?
“Food at our home has never been a problem — there’s plentiful because of our generous neighbours and community. Our very active surau, which Rahman prays at every night, serves packed food for congregation members and families.”
When the children were about to start schooling in 2020, Sheila contacted Yeoh for starter-kit assistance, mainly to encourage their father with the knowledge that the community was cheering the family on. She gave regular progress reports to the MP’s office and, earlier this year, because of the rising cost of living, sought and received funds given directly to Ee.
Friends who have met the children and know their background give them angpows during Chinese New Year. Recently, one arranged for the Ara Damansara Rotary Club in Petaling Jaya to donate RM400 every month, which goes towards topping up their pocket money and paying for field trips and outings. “The children say they want to help others, too, when they start working!”
Sheila thinks it is very important for them to know their own roots and where they come from for a sense of belonging. “My husband, children and I look upon ourselves as their extended family. We are all like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit. We celebrate and see each other with love and respect.”
What does Ee have to say about all that has happened concerning his children over the years?
“Ah Seng is a doting, dutiful father. He makes it a point to take leave to attend the school’s parent-teacher meeting every term. All he hopes for is the coveted IC for his children.”
This article first appeared on Nov 13, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.