By Koon Yew Yin
Last week I received a copy of an email invitation to a joint seminar by two academics, one from University of Malaya and the other from Unversiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. The title of their talk was “Does race matter in getting an interview? A field experiment of hiring discrimination in Peninsular Malaysia.”.
As I have been an employer with over 40 years experience, the seminar topic intrigued me. Unfortunately I was not able to attend. Subsequently, I have been following the internet discussion generated by the seminar. This includes the recent letter from the two researchers requesting an apology from an online news site which reported on the seminar findings.
Is Racial Bigotry an Issue in Hiring?
According to the letter, the online website had through its headline “Malaysian employers practise racial bigotry, study shows” grossly misrepresented the study. Although the two academics conceded that the article “fairly accurately conveys our main findings and conclusions”, they were upset by the politically incorrect term “racial bigotry” used in the headline.
In my view, the two academics, Lee Hwok Aun and Muhammed Abdul Khalid, would serve the policy public better if they put their energies into answering the question that they posed in their work – does race matter in getting an interview? If it does matter, then they need to explain why instead of making a mountain of a mole-hill over the use of the term “racial bigotry”.
According to their abstract the researchers conducted a field experiment by sending fictitious résumés of Malay and Chinese fresh graduates to real job advertisements. They then analyzed differentials in callback for interview attributable to racial identity. According to them there were statistically significant differences in callback rates, “indicating racial discrimination” since “Chinese are substantially more likely than Malays to be called for interview, and the difference is more acute in engineering jobs compared to accounting/finance.”
The Bigger Question: Why Are Malays Less Likely to be Interviewed?
It is not rocket science to know that private sector employers – not only in Malaysia but all over the world – are not totally racially blind in whom they chose to interview or hire. Although their findings confirm this, they also found that “in engineering jobs, estimated discrimination against Malay applicants is highest among foreign-controlled companies, followed by Malay-controlled companies, then Chinese-controlled companies”.
Why are Malays less likely to be called for interviews despite apparently similar credentials? That is the important question to ask and answer. To this question all we have is the suggestion that employers are less disposed toward Malays due to “compatibility factors and unobservable qualities”.
In less academic jargon or plain terms, what the two academics are saying is that they do not know why Malays are less likely to be interviewed although but they see this as indicating racial discrimination. What the two researchers have done is to allege the factor of racial discrimination without even interviewing the employers in their sample and examining deeper the reasons! Now what kind of research is this?
Of course race is a consideration in the employment market place and economy. Whether one is selling products or hiring staff, this factor is part of the calculus of business. In some cases it emerges as a major factor, in others less so, and in some cases not at all.
What are the reasons to explain this partiality or bias in interviewing for hiring? Is it because of ignorance? Is this reflective of attitudes and beliefs amounting to racial stereotyping? Is this a result of past experiences with incompetent staff from a particular race which have resulted in these so-called racially discriminatory practices? Does language competency play a role in this?
What explains the finding that foreign controlled firms are the most prejudiced when in fact it is often assumed that they are the most race blind or least discriminatory. And why do Malay controlled companies discriminate against applicants from their own race even more than Chinese firms?
All of these questions as well as other larger factors are completely ignored by the research. In my experience as an employer I have found that the Barisan Nasional’s pro-Malay bias in education and employment has resulted in sharply lowered standards. This has brought about a glut of Malay graduates, many of who are virtually unemployable as they lack English and Chinese language and social marketing skills.
Suggestions for Follow Up Work
The two academics claim that they have conducted the research to bring about a more informed and level-headed understanding of a contentious and difficult subject. To arrive at their objectives, I suggest that they take into account the feedback provided by members of the public to their work as well as conduct detailed fieldwork with the sampled employers.
Also, for their study to have policy significance, they should place their findings in the larger national context. This will require the employee breakdown of private (and public) sector employers in the country according to racial grouping as well as the racial composition of their employees.
This national picture will provide a better picture of who are being employed in the country and by whom, and will help to minimize any ugly finger pointing arising from the work.
Finally, I propose that they complement this study with one examining hiring and employment patterns in the Government, Petronas and GLCs where tax payers’ money is being used to hire staff and where racial discriminatory practices should be much less tolerated.