You’ll probably read about this in the papers tomorrow or Sunday (the Malaysian Insider has the scoop today – just ignore the headline, it’s not accurate), but I attended a very interesting seminar this morning at Universiti Malaya.
The topic: “Does race matter in getting an interview? A field experiment of hiring discrimination in Peninsular Malaysia”
Race is obviously a touchy subject in Malaysia, and frankly there’s not enough research into the area of discrimination to provide informed evidence on what is a potentially flammable subject. There is a lot of subjective and anecdotal evidence, but hardly much in the way of hard reproducible statistics.
This is where this new research comes in. What the two researchers, Lee Hwok Aun and Muhammad Abdul Khalid, have done is to send resumes (differentiated by race and academic achievement) to job advertisers in engineering and accounting fields. The number of people calling back counts as interest in the candidate.
What the results show were fascinating, though I won’t go into all the details. On an overall basis, Malay candidates are on average 16.7% less likely to be called, and the effect is stronger in engineering than in accounting. On a side note, the overall call-back ratio is just 13.1%.
Some of the other findings:
- Chinese language proficiency matters more than English (in fact it appears to be the single most important determining factor, apart from race), and the effect is stronger in engineering jobs;
- Which university you go to matters, but even more so for Malays – being a UiTM graduate appears to be a relative handicap, though less so in engineering than in accounting;
- Academic qualifications also matter, but is also a more significant factor for Malays than for Chinese candidates;
- And before anyone starts grumbling about racism, the preference for Chinese candidates is pretty much across the board, whether the company doing the advertising is Chinese controlled, foreign controlled, or (astonishingly) Malay controlled.
So here’s some firm evidence that discrimination is alive and well in Malaysia.
I have to digress here and differentiate between racial discrimination and racism – these are not the same. In the sense used here, racial discrimination (a revealed preference) in hiring is not synonymous to racial stereotyping or inherent prejudice.
One of the things discussed in the Q&A (interestingly enough, brought up by a Malay participant), was that those companies whose customer bases are mainly Chinese, or do a lot of business with Chinese majority countries, would have a natural – and rational – preference for ethnic Chinese staff. Consider that Mandarin is usually specified as a job requirement, yet is not the main Chinese language spoken in Malaysia. Hiring discrimination in this scenario would then be just good business sense.
And the fact that discrimination in favour of Chinese candidates is present even in Malay-controlled firms suggests that racism – while it can’t and shouldn’t be discounted – isn’t the only, or even the most important factor at play.
But that’s speculation on my part – this study provides no answers to that other question about racial discrimination: Given that it exists, why does it happen? And for the answer to that, we’ll have to wait for someone to take on that particular research challenge.