There is an excellent TV documentary called “Causes of the Arab Spring” by Hernando de Soto. He describes what happens when the State’s institutions exclude people from legitimate economic opportunity. He shows how, when people couldn’t properly obtain permits for their small market stalls, they became open to exploitation by corrupt officials. Unless a bribe was paid, they could be moved, shut down or worse, have their goods taken from them. Exploited by everyone, unable to get proper permits and unable to seek a remedy in the courts, the people profiled by de Soto were excluded from both participation in legitimate economic opportunities and protection of the Rule of Law. Sadly, these marginalized citizens are not alone in the world; however, that doesn’t mean that the status quo must prevail.

Citizens in most modern societies interact with state institutions in many ways: education, healthcare, employment, land, resources and citizenship itself. Demonstrating one’s nationality is often a crucial requirement to access services and even constitutional rights. What happens if you don’t have a nationality? What happens if you do not “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.

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 nearly 7.6 billion 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. Gaythri was invited by the then Chief Justice, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Richard Malanjum to participate in the “Mobile Courts of East Malaysia,” whose mission was to bring legal services to persons in rural Sabah and Sarawak, including registering those who are stateless as citizens of Malaysia, thereby bringing them under the protection of the Rule of Law.

She and some of her team visited a village called Kampung Matanggal nestled in the dense Malaysian jungle. The only road to the village is a trail of cracked tarmac snaking through the 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. But since many in Kampung Matanggal could not, we brought the city to them.

An expedition consisting of a hundred vehicles – carrying magistrates, lawyers, medical officers, government officials, including the former Chief Justice of Malaysia, security personnel and the police – travelled seven hours and set up camp in the village. Yes, I mean “camp” … as in “tents 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, court chambers and a citizen registration department in the village school, which was covered by a tin roof and powered by a small generator. A lively crowd had already formed, some having arrived the night before to try to improve their chance of being helped.

Court officers directed villagers to the correct departments. Documents were aflutter! Birth certificates, marriage certificates, clinic health reports – mere scraps of paper that wield so much power and opportunity over human lives. Two hundred twenty hopeful souls 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 were assigned a pro-bono lawyer to assist with their paperwork. Once their paperwork was in order, they appeared before a judge who, in the full dignity of high office, was perched on a wobbly plastic chair.

“Our job as judges,” said the former chief justice, “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.”

If all went well, the applicants proceeded to the little booth run by the National Registration Department to get their picture taken and obtain their official citizenship certificate, thereby coming into legal existence in the eyes of the Malaysian government.

Without the establishment of the mobile courts, a unique innovation within the Malaysian justice system, hundreds of people in Kampung Matanggal might have gone on living as stateless people, barred from economic prosperity, basic human dignity, humanitarian services and the Rule of Law. But with a bit of initiative, determination, the right core skills and working with partners, we can make a difference and bring ever more people under the protection of the Rule of Law – one document stamp at a time.

Data has proven that a strong Rule of Law has a positive socio-economic impact on citizens, increasing life expectancy and GDP while reducing crime, corruption, and infant mortality rates. We saw this for ourselves in Kampung Matanggal, but there are many other places that need help, as de Soto portrays.

Where would you like to see the Rule of Law next spread its wings?

Visit to let us know or to get involved.


About Ian

Ian McDougall is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the LexisNexis, Legal &…