Hiring Discrimination in Peninsular Malaysia Study: A Half Finished Product


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.

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  1. #1 by artemisios on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 11:57 am

    SELECTIVE SAMPLING (the public sector, the biggest employer in the country, was not sampled!)… NO FOLLOW-UP actions… NO SOLUTIONS PROVIDED… and… the most laughable research conclusion I’ve ever seen professors make………….. they have no idea why Malays are less likely to be called for interviews, did not bother to investigate why, & therefore concluded that there is some racial discrimination! Outstanding!

    You two professors, should you submit your damn CVs to me, no matter you state yourself as Malay, Chinese, Indian, Mat Salleh or whatever…. I’LL NEVER HIRE YOU.

  2. #2 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 12:22 pm

    So malay employers prefer non-malay engineers too? Hey bro, that is actually not news. And chinese employers, comparatively speaking, do not mind malay engineers? That is only logical!

    I am not going to elaborate my statements above. It is gonna be sooo embarassing if I do so.

  3. #3 by sheriff singh on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:20 pm

    I am told this study was not properly conducted as required of any research.

    What was the exact purpose and object of the ‘research’ ? Was the ‘research’ conducted professionally and satisfy the standard for a research or was it already biased from the very start ?

    What was the sample size used ? Did it conform to the accepted statistical standards for a valid research? Was the sample reflective of the population that conclusions can be made or inferred or are the results only reflective of a particular area only ?

    What is the actual methodology used and did these conform to acceptable standards for a valid and reliable research?

    Were the analyses properly carried out and interpreted or was there a bias right from the start?

    Can this ‘study’ be generalised to the entire population? It is easy to form opinions but are these based on firm reliable and valid data ?

    Was the study ethically sound?

    What was the scope of the study? What were the limitations?

    Questions, questions, questions. More questions than answers.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:28 pm

    Where did the two researchers say they were from?

    The university that has a lowly 5 out of 100 (5%) citations in the latest QS rankings ? Not very impressive for a ‘research university’ is it?

    Good universities have high scores of above 70/100.

  5. #5 by monsterball on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:43 pm

    In commercial firms not controlled by Umno b and his cronies..race does not matters.
    It’s qualifications…attitudes for new comers….and experiences with good track records for anyone seeking better jobs and careers.
    In Govt. sectors…an idiot can be a manager as long as that idiot is influential and loyal vote to Umno b.

  6. #6 by megaman on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:49 pm

    Why didn’t these so-called researchers interview the employers themselves ?

    Or they did but are afraid to publish the comments / feedbacks received ?

    I was tasked with hiring before and I can definitely answer why.

    I had more problems with interviewing Malays than other races.

    a. Not turning for interviews or turning up late.

    b. Do not have the courtesy to call or reply before the interview to either to confirm the appointment or inform me that he/she will be late.

    c. Horrible command of English or can only speak / read Malay.

    d. Extremely buffed-up resumes but in actual fact, participated very little or minor roles in the projects listed.

    the list goes on and on … And unfortunately, it is very very common. Perhaps only 1 in 20 Malays interviewed have the potential to be hired.

    Now when you have tonnes of applications to review and very little time due to tight deadlines and other workloads, would you still take time to review all of the resumes or would you do like what I did after a while, automatically discarding applications from Malays ?

  7. #7 by monsterball on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:54 pm

    Muslims working in commercial firms that are not controlled by Umno b cronies…are more open minded….smarter and sharp in minds.
    They are not religion fanatics.
    Bosses are not concern who they vote for. That’s their private decisions. Bosses want results.
    However…strange as it may seem..vast majority Muslims in commercial firms will vote for PR and change….more so now…as days passes by.
    Young first timer workers are hard working and smart….and that’s what Mahathir hates most.
    He cannot fool young Muslims..like before.
    All are laughing at that thick skin first class liar idiot….little by little…exposing himself for what we know he is.

  8. #8 by cseng on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 3:05 pm

    That is the problem with some of our ‘professional’, ‘academician’ or the human right ‘champions’. They know their view matters, yet they write in very political-diplomatically, like Najib’s political speech.

    You don’t write your research and worry about being sacked, write like Lim Teck Ghee, back-up with facts, figures and un-bias and reasonable conclusion.

    If it is racial bigotry then be it, that is the fact? how can we not behave racial bigotry if the policies are at such, positively the racial policies works. Or these academics risk to be group together with our human rights champions, end up being part of the problem.

    When you ‘prostitutionised’ your profession or field of expertly, you are a ‘prostitute’ what ever your profession is.

  9. #9 by cemerlang on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 8:09 pm

    The technicalities of a research hinder itself. Like your questions will never be answered by a research. Like you cannot do this research because it is so and so and so. Therefore in the end, your problem is not completely solved. It is only partially solved. But without research, but with facts, with evidences, you find you have answers and of course, more questions. You do not need a dramatic research to tell you you have more of this race workers in your organization. You do not need the great SPSS 6 or whatever it is to tell you that crimes are increasing. What is SPSS 6, only God knows. But then again, which dialect of Chineses will be employed ? And then the Chineses will fight among themselves. It is not only in West Malaysia. Even in East Malaysia. Never forget that.

  10. #10 by waterfrontcoolie on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 11:40 pm

    Many researchers are rather naive in their quest for truth. If you are solely held accountable for the survival of the company, you cannot afford to employ anyone except someone who has given you the confidence that he/she can succeed. Did they ever ask why the GLCs are practically 90% of one community! When they talk of the private sector, especially those called SMIs, it is implied that most are owned by the Chinese who are prejudiced against employing non-Chinese. They forgot one simple fact that many of these employees have had worked with the companies when they were struggling even to pay their salaries! Well, at THAT TIME, others are not interested! So do you expect the owners to place NEW managers above those who have served and progressed with him,albeit some may not be as qualified as the new applicants.
    Talking about being qualified does getting a degree from some of our public universities really mean better qualified? Only recently, an ex-colleague called to get help to get some engineers; be it mechanical, electrical, electronic or mechatronic except civil for his company. Hey, I told him, there are plenty in the market. He retorted, don’t be funny. how many such engineers woul MU produced? Of which only 30% would want to enter the private sector? why? the other 70% would have opted for Gomen jobs or GLCs! Of the rest of the Unis, he expressed concern. Why? He had recruited some, tried but failed to deliver! what about those from overseas, against he said, less than 40% of these graduates would be avialeble in the open market; many prefer to run their family SMIs! And again the MNCs would grab many of these garduates as MNCs would appear to be more attractive even if hw offers the same starting pay! Businessmen as Mr. Koon indicated have not much tine for discrimination, they only look at results! To fit into a Chinese owned SMIs, the mind-set must be set right!

  11. #11 by boh-liao on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 12:16 am

    They should carry out another research. Use not only RACE but also RELIGION in d job applications, e.g., Malay name (automatically assumed 2 b Muslim), Chinese Muslim, Chinese Christian, Chinese Buddhist, Chinese Hindu, Chinese atheist, Indian Muslim, Indian Christian, etc
    Mayb employers don’t like 2 hire staff who is not productive, eg, may go on maternity leave very often, may take time off 2 pray more than once every day, etc

  12. #12 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 5:22 am

    Bottom line I would assume that any hirer/employer/entrepreneur will prioritize productivity of the employee that meet his profit objectives over the employee’s race per se unless race and its associated cultural traits are perceived by the hirer/employer/entrepreneur as rationally bearing negatively on productivity. Thus who does one categorize an employer who displays both racially discriminatory as well as non discriminatory practices at the same time? For example we have an employer who have employed his Malay employees for last 20 years –and will continue to employ them for the next 20 years- because of proven service and loyalty record). Here he displays no racial discrimination. However the same employer now is (say) less inclined (as researchers say) to call for interviews of Malays based on his perception or experience that thanks to the values inculcated by the NEP the present crop tend either to be deficient in work ethic, English proficiency or their qualifications from local public educational institutions are suspect.

  13. #13 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 5:23 am

    Continuing from post under current moderation: It is indisputable that the employer here has displayed reverse discrimination against this group based on racial stereotyping. So how does one categorise such an employer who has shown discriminatory attitude in some latter instances but not so in earlier instances? The question is whether his perception has or has not by itself a rational basis in relation to his business objectives. An employee could make or break one’s business. It is easy to employ but not easy to terminate (due to contractual obligations) and in between an incompetent worker can wreck financial havoc. So the employer is inclined to take the line that it is better to err on side of caution, which explains the reverse discrimination, where it occurs. Such reverse discriminatory practices arise from the perception of the effects of NEP on the group it is designed to apply and favour.

  14. #14 by boh-liao on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 8:20 am

    They should carry out another research. Use not only RA CE but also RE LIGION n LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY in job applications
    Will a company interview a Chinese Muslim who speaks only BM?
    Will a company interview a Malay who is proficient in BM, English, Mandarin, Tamil, Cantonese, n Hokkien?

  15. #15 by SENGLANG on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 8:56 am

    The so call research or rather a mere survey and its conclusion was shallow and meaningless. Simply sent out candidates to interviews and from that data and make conclusion that most employers are discriminate one race against other was not conclusive and much more misleading.

    Employers hire with one objective ie that the staff so hire will perform up the mark and meet the employers expectations. To be practical it just happen that generally people from certain race are favour than the other simply because they can meet the employers’ expectation more than those from the other. That is as simple as that. Employers will not discriminate simply you are so and so, they are very practical what an employers look for is that the staffs can perform with minimum supervisions, and they can bring return to the company.

    If you want to talk about race discrimination in employments, i believe many will agree that the government is the biggest employer who will discriminate one against the other

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