High number of unemployment graduates among the Malays is not something new in Malaysia. More often than not, some of them blame everything but themselves. However, a recent study revealed that race matters much more than resume quality with Malays being significantly less likely to be called for interview.
The research paper titled Race and graduate hiring in Malaysia, published in the Journal of Asia Pacific Economy by UM and UKM researchers investigated racial discrimination in hiring degree graduates in Malaysia through a field experiment where they sent fictitious Malay and Chinese resumes to job advertisements then analyse differentials in callback for interview attributable to racial identity, while controlling for applicant characteristics, employer profile and job requirements.
Results from the research revealed Malay candidates are on average 16.7% less likely to be called, and the effect is stronger in engineering than in accounting.
Other interesting findings are Chinese language proficiency matters more than English and the effect is more apparent in engineering jobs. Apart from that, learning institutions also matters where for Malays especially as UiTM graduates seem to be a relative handicap but less so in engineering than in accounting.
Other factors, particularly language proficiency of employees, language requirements of jobs and profile of employers, influence employer biases, the survey reveals.
Before anyone start screaming these employers are racist , Amarjeet Singh Sran, a corporate trainer wrote Race Discrimination In Hiring Practices In Malaysia, reminded us that racial discrimination and racism are two different terms. He said in this context, racial discrimination or a revealed preference in hiring is not synonymous to racial stereotyping or ingrained prejudice.
He further stated there is a lot of subjective and anecdotal evidence but hardly much in the way of hard reproducible statistics.
After the survey report by the UM and UKM researchers went viral, it received some criticism levelled at the method it was conducted, which only surveyed engineering and accounting and limiting their study to only the private sector in Malaysia.
So how accurate are their findings? Is it purely anecdotal as Amarjeet points out or are there other factors at play?
Malay Graduates Share Their Experiences
Malaysian Digest asked few of job seekers whether they ever feel racially discriminated, they said it’s more towards religion rather than race.
Nurul Fazura, 28, told Malaysian Digest that a company once asked her to remove her hijab if she wants to work there.
“In my opinion, I don’t think it’s about race but more about religion.
“When I was being interviewed for a company in Kuala Lumpur, they asked whether I’m willing to remove my hijab should I choose to work for them and I said “no, I’m not” and walked out.
“It’s sad that Muslims are being discriminated when majority of Malaysians are Muslims,” she lamented.
On the other hand, another job seeker that we talked to said he never had the experience of being discriminated.
“So far, when I applied for vacancies online and don’t get callbacks for interview, I never felt like I’m being discriminated because of my race. I feel that maybe, they think that I don’t have the necessary skills or my resume is not appealing.
“Plus, whenever I see an opening that requires candidates to have Mandarin proficiency, I just skip it because I don’t have it and the company clearly states they want someone with that skill,” said 27-year-old Mohd Faizal.
On that note, we asked stakeholders whether employers really take candidates’ racial background and education as a determining factor before considering to call them for interviews.
Employers Look At Candidates’ Skills Rather Than Racial Background
In our interview with Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan, he disagrees with the finding that there are discriminatory elements in job hiring. He adds an employer will look at the candidates’ criterias, whether they are suitable for the position rather than their racial background.
“We have to look at the employer's’ need when hiring and one of the important criteria is communication.
“Race is not an issue unless candidates from a certain race is linked to the company’s needs like communication. For instance, a company that focuses on Chinese market will need someone who is proficient in Mandarin regardless if the candidate is a Bumiputera or not.
“The same can be said if a company is focusing on markets at the Middle East countries. It needs someone who is proficient in Arabic, again, not because of race factor.
“However, it so happens that many Malay graduates do not have English proficiency. Hence whether they got selected for the job or not is based on their skills, not because of their racial background,” he told Malaysian Digest.
But what about the effect of quality? Let’s say employers are more favourable toward Chinese graduates in private sector and Malays in the public sector, is it because of race or academic achievement or is it because of compatibility of applicant with company?
Datuk Shamsuddin feels that employers are being selective before calling Malay candidates because they had bad experience when interviewing them.
“Probably the employers had experience interviewing Malay candidates and so have I.
“I acknowledge that there are many weaknesses among Malay graduates. Nevertheless, we can’t say that because of that, employers do practice discrimination.
“Because during the interview, employers will remember their communication skill. So, if the candidates is not below average, companies in private sectors do not see it as a problem because the real challenge is how candidates carry themselves during interview session.
“If they could communicate well, I’m certain that the chance for them to be hired is high regardless of race,” he said.
Datuk Shamsuddin feels that it has become a practice where there are more Malay applicants in public sector compared to non-Malays.
“If there are 1,000 vacancies in public sector and there are 130,000 applicants where majority of them are Bumiputera. This has become a practice because Bumiputera prefer to get a job that is safe.
“They feel that working in public sector, it is rare for layoff to happen or employers to take disciplinary action. Whereas, it is different case working in private sector.
“It is true that not many non-Malays apply for vacancies in public sector. They think that if they perform well in companies and contribute to the company’s growth, they will award their staff with bonuses or increment.
“Hence, regardless of their race, they are more attracted to work in the private sector.
“Furthermore, most employers hardly look at applicants academic qualification because they opined that there is no point hiring someone who graduated with first class degree but are not equipped with skills,” Datuk Shamsuddin emphasized.
“Other Types” Of Discrimination In Workplace Do Exist
Even though it is prohibited to discriminate someone based on race or country of origin, that does not mean that the practice does not exist.
In our interview with the president of Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (Cuepacs), Datuk Azih Muda, he said there is discrimination while hiring such as low salary, no-hijab policy or if the applicant is wearing baju kurung they have to wear skirts among other or in other words, religion-based discrimination.
Religion-based discrimination means treating a person unfairly because of his or her religious affiliation, not to mention prohibited. This kind of discrimination includes harassment and preferential or negative treatment.
“We also received complaints saying when they went for interview at companies owned by non-Malays, they are not given equal opportunity despite their qualifications.
“Meanwhile, in public sector, we have not received any complaints about non-Malay applicants being denied working in that sector.
“It is just, not many of them apply for jobs in public sector. Perhaps they think that working in public sector they will earn low income compared to working in private sector,” he said.
Cuepacs also received complaints despite a candidate has English proficiency, race is still a priority.
“Even if the candidate is selected to work for the company, he or she will hold a low position because if the company is owned by a certain race, we hardly see anyone of another race to hold a higher position within the company,” he added.
From the conversation generated on social media by the viral survey, there are also people who think that even though Malay applicants have lower-quality education they have higher opportunities in the public sector.
But, this is a very complex issue and more research are needed. Moreover, the researchers stated that because of pro-Malay policies, it hurts Malay graduates’ job prospects.
Writer Moshin Abdullah had responded to this issue by highlighting the real situation on the ground, mysinchew.com reports.
"The realty is that there are Chinese companies who take in workers based on merit, sticking to professionalism, quality and qualification.
"And there are also Chinese companies who do not employ Malays, referring to give employment to Chinese instead.
"To them if Chinese do not help Chinese, who else will?" he points out that leads to a situation of Chinese helping Chinese, Malays helping Malays.
The writer also highlighted Indian owned entities employing only or majority Indians, pointing out the same reason as Chinese employers.
He suggests the first step to break the vicious cycle has to come from the government.
"To me all kinds or forms of assistance based on race should be stopped. Abolished. No more chosen ones, no more special people, no more privileged lot. Equality for all Malaysians. Opportunities for all."
Shared Problems Demand Shared Solutions
The reality is discrimination in the work environment happens by and large and is a prevailing issue worldwide.
A 'Race at Work' survey of over 24,000 ethnic minority and white employees in the UK in 2015 has highlighted that race discrimination is prevalent with 28 percent of employees from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background having directly experienced or witnessed racial harassment or bullying from their manager in the last five years, The Independent reports.
While in the United States, a poverty outreach NGO povertyactionlab.org, highlighted that racial inequality is still pervasive in the U.S. labour market, revealing that compared to whites, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, and earn nearly 25 percent less when they are employed.
Even though employees in developed nations are regarded as having more proactive policies on discrimination, it would appear that in the 21st century, employees see signs of discrimination in everyday activities, such as performance reviews, the hiring and firing process, and dynamics between co-workers, which deprive them of career opportunities and adversely affect employee status.
Do We Need To Put In Place Laws That Address Discrimination At Workplaces?
According to the academic Azizi Ahmad in a letter about discrimination at workplace which was published by The New Straits Times in July this year, he highlighted that the only "specific equality and anti-discrimination act in Malaysia is the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008.
"This act represents a positive step towards the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. However, the act does not include operative provisions setting out the rights to equality and non-discrimination, but it does incorporate some of the country’s obligations."
Azizi also points out that Article 8 of our Constitution is the cornerstone of constitutional protection of the rights to equality and non-discrimination in Malaysia. Article 8(1) states that: “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.”
While 589 Article 8(2) states that: There shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.
Lastly, 590 Article 8(2) offers a limited protection from discrimination, in terms of the types of individuals which it seeks to protect, and the scope of protection it offers to those it does protect.
We can end workplace discrimination by making sure both employees and employers know the law. Employees have every right to work in a situation that is free of of harassment because of age, sex, race, ability, religion and ethnicity.
Another way of stopping discrimination is by hiring a diverse group of employees where they could learn and understand other cultures and have a mutual respect for all team members.
On that note, it is clear that more work needs to be done in this matter with people in the academic community, private organizations, governments and even society coming forward to shed more light on this issue. We have to acknowledge that these are shared problems which demand shared solutions.