COMMENT | When the Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS) released its findings that Chinese candidates obtained more job callbacks than their Malay and Indian counterparts with similar qualifications, it made news as if this was the first time Malaysians had stumbled on the ‘shocking’ revelation that racial discrimination is alive and well in employment in the country.
Since then, much of the feedback has covered the methodological weaknesses, possible bias and motives behind the study.
Although these concerns are not trivial, the emphasis on issues of methodological interest is diverting policymakers - as well as ordinary Malaysians - from focusing on the elephant in the room in this matter.
The elephant is the state and its role in setting the stage for racial discrimination to not only take place in employment, but also in ensuring that racial discrimination flourishes in the economy and society.
In response to the Cent-GPS findings, calls are being made to punish employers through the enactment of legislation to make them desist in their so-called anti-national, anti-meritocratic and divisive practices.
Let’s ask first where these practices are really rooted in and take their inspiration from. Before rushing to new policies or legislation, let's have a deeper analysis of why this problem exists after 60 years of rhetoric on the need for a Malaysian identity to overcome parochial racial sentiments.
Only after we have had the outcome of rigorous and independent studies, as well as feedback from key stakeholders and stake players can we begin to have a better understanding of why racial discriminatory practices are prevalent among employers.
A start has been made by the Cent-GPS and a few earlier studies. To correct what has been described as a decades-old situation, more established university research centres and the government should carry out further studies, and continuously put this subject in the public and policy spotlight.
Suggestions for New Studies on Racial Discrimination
Here are some suggestions on how researchers can extend the work on race issues in employment to inform any new anti-race discrimination policy targeting private sector employers.
1. Extend the scope of the current study to inquire into the hiring practices of the largest employers in the country. The two largest are GLCs and the civil service. According to a Khazanah estimate, GLC employees in 2013 comprised around five percent of the national workforce of 14 million. As for the civil service, current figures place its staff number at 1.7 million employees.
2. Examine the recruitment practices of GLCs and the civil service in selecting deserving applicants, irrespective of race. This investigation should cover the related concern with the promotion of staff - a subject of equal, if not more important, in the employment market.
In 2009 when the 1Malaysia programme was introduced, then prime minister Najib Abdul Razak promised that it would promote ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient governance. This move seems to have been a belated response to make good the implementation of Article 136 of the Federal Constitution, which states that all persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially.
How the 1Malaysia programme and any new Pakatan programme is correcting the racial imbalance in the employment practices of GLCs and the civil service - a commitment made as one of the two prongs of the New Economic Policy in 1970 - would comprise another key area of research.
3. The results of these studies on the hiring and promotion practices of the two foremost employers in the country should be disseminated to the private sector, which has been accused of pursuing a “stark pro-Chinese bias.” That way the private sector, especially Chinese employers, will have an appropriate role model to emulate.
Besides the local audience, others that can benefit from a better understanding of how the Malaysian government, through its control over the civil service and GLCs, is dealing with racial discrimination include foreign investors, the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and other international organisations, and the international media. The fight against racial discrimination is taking place all over the world. Many countries will be eager to learn from Malaysia.
Racial Quotas as an Out of the Box Solution
There are likely to be critics of the above suggestions aimed at monitoring and checking racial discrimination in employment. Some cynics note that race matters in every aspect of life in Malaysia - be it economic, social, cultural or political. They also maintain that it is the leading factor accounting for the way in which the government, especially, conducts its activities.
Hence, instead of waging a losing battle against political reality and institutional mindsets unwilling to implement open non-racial positions, they argue that it is easier to implement a system of race-based employment quotas. Such an explicit system, coupled with meritocratic selection within the racial quota, would mean that we address the concern that racial discrimination is keeping out talent; and could provide for a more durable form of national unity.
Implementation of racial quotas would mean that both the private and public sectors would work towards a level of staff racial profile that reflects the country’s racial population mix within a certain period of time - say 10 or 15 years.
By the year 2030 or 2035, each community would be able to see its racial group proportionately reflected in employment in industry, agriculture, education, services, etc. Besides application to employment at the lower levels, racial ratios would be made applicable to the senior and highest levels of banks, business enterprises, universities, the police and armed forces, the judiciary, etc, that are currently dominated by a single race.
This solution to the issue of racial bias in employment will come for criticism as it may appear too radical or cynical. However, it is one that many policymakers and citizens may have the least problem in understanding the logic of in our race-obsessed society and government.
LIM TECK GHEE is a public policy analyst and author of the book Challenging Malaysia's Status Quo.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.