By Sebastian Loh
I remember working late at one of my previous jobs – only my boss, a colleague, and I remained in the office. We had recently hired a few new Malay employees but they had already left for the day.
Taking advantage of this, my boss turned to my colleague, who had a hand in supervising the new staff, and casually asked, “What do you think of our new Malay staff? Are they okay?”
The questions made me sick to my stomach because they implied that Malays are somehow less capable or less hardworking. But that experience really encapsulates the steep discrimination Malays face in the private sector.
And that’s not just a one-off story – there’s compelling empirical evidence that confirms this.
Several years ago, researchers Lee Hwok-Aun and Muhammad Abdul Khalid published a landmark study on the effects of race on private sector hiring.
The paper titled “Degrees of Discrimination: Race and Graduate Hiring in Malaysia” concluded that, “Malay job applicants are significantly less likely than Chinese applicants to be called for interview”.
Additionally, the researchers noted that “Malay-controlled companies are less likely than Chinese-controlled companies to call a Malay applicant for interview”. But that obscures the far more disturbing aspects of their findings.
It is true they found that Chinese-controlled companies called Malay resumes (applicants) at a marginally higher rate than Malay-controlled companies (3.8 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively). But what’s more important is the ratio at which these firms called Malay and Chinese applicants.
A look at the study’s data reveals a stark contrast: Chinese-controlled companies called an astounding 6.3 Chinese applicants for every Malay applicant they called. Malay-controlled companies, on the other hand, called 1.6 Chinese applicants per Malay. So while it may be politically inconvenient to swallow, it’s not difficult to infer that racism is significantly more entrenched at Chinese-controlled firms.
This is not a call for mobs with pitchforks to swarm the nearest Chinese company. But it’s high time that we in the Chinese community come to terms with the facts: Yes, Malays face severe discrimination in the workplace. And yes, Chinese people have a lot to do with that discrimination.
For years, these accusations (and even the aforementioned study) have been met with fierce dismal and defensive arguments from many Chinese. In response, they rail against government favouritism and point to the discrimination they face from government policies.
But how does that reactionary and juvenile “he started it first” attitude solve anything?
Today, Chinese Malaysians are arguably the first to complain about worsening race relations in the country. So how do we go about fixing that?
Here’s what hasn’t worked: Having runs or picnics with multiracial themes (Seems like a weekly thing these days). Or holding up placards with feel-good slogans (Have you thought of a career in calligraphy and advertising instead?).
Or waxing nostalgia about a mythical period when Malaysia was more open and tolerant (Do you really believe race relations in times past were that amazing? Aren’t you forgetting the May 13 racial riots?).
Blissfully ignoring the complexities of racial issues – including anti-Malay discrimination – keeps us from making progress. Folks, we can’t Ola Bola or Yasmin Ahmad ourselves to racial harmony.
Instead, what’s necessary is a realistic assessment of our situation. Until and unless Malays feel secure and welcome in the private sector, the cycle of racial division will continue. The most toxic (and racist) political forces in the country only thrive because Malays are alienated and left behind in the broader economy.
And we the Chinese need to change that. The Chinese community and political leaders need to take the lead in proposing policies addressing discrimination in the workplace.
They need to convince industry players – many of whom are Chinese – of the need for change and diversity.
And most importantly, we need a national conversation on race that is mature, frank, and devoid of cheap sentimentalism. We need to recognise that Malays also suffer greatly in the private sector if we are to expect them to recognise our own grouses.
We need to stop talking exclusively about violations of our rights, and talk about how we can help Malays get ahead in life. In short, we need to drop the insularity and defensiveness, and think of others.
If we can do that, I expect we’ll see a tremendous amount of goodwill from the great majority of Malays – and not just the urban liberals who are regulars at NGO forums.
Imagine the sort of massive change that it would bring to our politics and society. But that’s only if we choose to be part of the solution, not the problem.
The alternative is to continue holding anti-racist runs and picnics every year to remind ourselves that we’re not racist. I think the country deserves better, don’t you?
Sebastian Loh is an FMT reader.
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