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Set up commission to tackle ethnic discrimination

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How can there be an increase in productivity if ethnic stereotyping and prejudice is culturally ingrained in government agencies and in the private sector, wonders Ronald Benjamin.

A local daily recently published an interesting article (“Our productivity takes a beating”, theSun, 24 June 2016) which discussed pertinent issues that have effected the productivity of the Malaysian workforce.

The author, Azman Ujang, highlighted the reduction of productivity, which grew only 3.3 per cent compared to the 11th Malaysian Plan target of 3.7 per cent a year. Productivity is estimated to decline by 2.5-3.5 per cent this year.

To tackle such a decline, Trade and Industry Minister Mustafa call for a transformation of skills, attitudes and efforts to facilitate innovation. The brain drain and poor command of English have also been seen as among the causes of the decline in productivity. Then, there is the related case of some MAS employees said to be sleeping on the job.

While the above reasons contain certain truths about Malaysian work culture and productivity, there is a missing link that is usually hidden under the carpet. Commentators often pay too much attention to productivity at the macro level while ignoring the micro aspect. This aspect has strong links to ethno-centric prejudice and the related education systems and institutions that produce the workforce.

The Malaysian workforce today is manoeuvring in a terrain where ethnic prejudices and stereotypes determine, to a certain extent, the type of functional positions workers are recruited for. For example, I have came across top-level managers who prefer those of their own ethnicty in certain functional positions believing that they will do a better job than those of other ethnicities.

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Sometimes, statements are made such as a certain ethnic group does not have the intelligence for numeracy even if they have qualified with related degrees. There are also preferential business units that are dominated by a particular ethnic group, and their salaries are higher than those in other similar business units. Lorry drivers doing the same job are given different rates of wages base on ethnic considerations.

How can there be an increase in productivity if ethnic stereotyping and prejudice is culturally ingrained in government agencies and in the private sector? How can Vision 2020 come about when the best is only seen as coming from among one’s own ones ethnic group?

This brings us to another pertinent question: is there a difference in the quality of education in national schools compared with Chinese vernacular schools and international schools? Most of our graduates who are regarded as having a poor command of English are from national schools.

Malay employees are by and large protected by the GLCs and the civil service. Chinese Malaysians are generally protected from language barriers by their dominance in the private sector. Many from other minority ethnic groups have to prove beyond doubt that they are capable.

The fact is, Malaysian minority groups and Malays who are not employed in the civil service face an uphill battle in trying to get recruited in key functional positions due to ethnic prejudice. These are harsh realities that need to be tackled the government, civil society and political parties who claim to support meritocracy.

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For a start, a national survey should be conducted to find out whether Malaysians experience ethnic prejudice when dealing with potential and current employers in the government and private sectors.

The results of the survey, if statistically proven to be worrying, should be a catalyst for the formation of an equal opportunities commission to tackle ethnic discrimination at the work place whether in recruitment or compensation.

Such a commission, as it evolves, could also play a broader role in curbing various forms of discrimination. The United States and United Kingdom has such commissions which could be used as a model. For instance, there should be written justification why certain candidates are rejected even though they are qualified.

The issue of productivity is complex. But it can be addressed if government and business elites who dominate the political and private sectors are willing to tackle the missing links. They should also be honest enough to acknowledge that the constant stoking of ethnic politics has negative implications for productivity and are a real barrier to Vision 2020.

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