Home TA Online Three ways to correct ethnic imbalances in the workforce

Three ways to correct ethnic imbalances in the workforce

It is high time leaders strengthen their political will to tackle this issue


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By Raveen Jeyakumar

Controversial ethnic imbalances in the private and public sectors of the country’s workforce have existed for some time.

Ethnic group A dominates the public service in terms of the composition of members at both management and staff levels.

Ethnic group B dominates small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially at the level of business owners.

A recent analysis revealed that 77.5% of the management, professional and support staff in the public service were from ethnic group A. As much as 80.4% of top management in the public service were also from ethnic group A.

In contrast, about 90% of industrial SMEs are owned by those from ethnic group B.

This polarisation creates insecurity in job opportunities in these sectors. It also affects people’s socioeconomic status.

This causes injustice, defensiveness and resentment among people from different ethnicities.

Such feelings have become deep-rooted in the psyche of most Malaysians. This creates divisions between the ethnic groups in the country, and people’s thoughts and views are then shaped through ethnic lenses.

Some politicians and NGOs worsen these ethnic imbalances by using race and religion for their benefit. They manipulate people’s emotions to gain political points and voter support.

Both ethnic groups, A and B, have legitimate concerns that should be considered.

For example, ethnic group A is defensive about their dominant position in the public service, as it guarantees their employment and income.

Yet, many individuals from ethnic group A are keen to work in the SME sector.

SMEs account for 59% of all jobs in Malaysia, and in 2022, they produced 38% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

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One big problem, however, is that compared to ethnic group B, group A faces ethnic and language discrimination when they apply for jobs in SMEs.

Many group A members working in the SME sector also feel discriminated in job promotions.

Another big hurdle: compared to group B, group A has far less start-up capital; they also lack the right business skills and connections to start their own SME business.

Meanwhile, ethnic group B is dissatisfied and has negative views of the public service dominated by ethnic group A.

Some in group B are keen to serve in the government. But they face difficulties and discrimination when applying for jobs in the public service or in getting promotions.

To effectively solve this issue, the government must holistically and gradually correct the ethnic imbalances in the workforce.

It is high time leaders strengthen their political will to tackle this issue.

The government could take three measures:

1. Strengthen the Employment Act 1955

The current amendment to this act is weak. It only protects those who have already entered a service contract. It does not protect those who face ethnic or language discrimination when applying to fill vacancies in a particular company.

Specific acts are needed to remove job sector discrimination. Only with this legislative empowerment can discrimination in the job sector be curbed.

2. Gradually implement a quota system

The government should set quotas for hiring and promoting to improve diversity in the public service and SMEs.

In the beginning, these quotas should start at a low level and gradually increase. They should be introduced in both sectors simultaneously.

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To get feedback, the government should have discussions with the public service and SME sectors. This will enable it to enact a more holistic and effective quota system.

3. Strictly monitor and regulate entrepreneurial capacity-building programmes

At present, too many of the contracts and business opportunities awarded by the government and its firms to group A-owned SMEs are then subcontracted to group B-owned SMEs. The group A SME owners merely collect commissions or mark-ups from such deals.

Such practices defeat the purpose of government programmes that aim to build the business and technical skills of group A entrepreneurs.

The government should strictly monitor these programmes to weed out those who abuse the system for rent-seeking. Those found guilty should be blocked and not be given anymore contracts.

If this problem of ethnic imbalances in the workforce is left unresolved with no serious efforts to correct them, they will worsen. Ultimately, it is the common people who will suffer, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

A responsible government that cares for the people’s wellbeing should quickly implement these holistic measures to correct the ethnic imbalances in the country’s workforce.

Raveen Jeyakumar is an Aliran volunteer based in Ipoh with an interest in social and environmental issues

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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KK Kul
KK Kul
6 Aug 2023 9.35am

Isn’t setting quota for SME & public service another way of discrimination? The issue could only be resolved if they could find a way to improve the capability of individuals in the work force.

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