October 28th, 2016 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Has Malaysia eliminated identification of race by economic function?
I have been thinking about this casually over the past several years, ever since that one afternoon when I wanted a cold drink and began to take notice the ethnicity or nationality of the men and women working as waiters at various restaurants and cafes. I have always taken that reality for granted, but on that day I began to think about the association of certain professions with certain nationality, race or more accurately, ethnicity.
Going back to the question, I think the short answer is no.
Has Malaysia made progress towards elimination? It is complicated.
When a politically-conscious Malaysian thinks about the racial identification via economic role, it is usually within the context of the New Economic Policy. The policy had two objectives. One, the eradication of poverty. Two, the elimination of racial identification by economic function.
If you are a supporter of the NEP, it is likely you think both goals have been achieved, directly by the policy.
At risk of digression, I have reservations about the first claim because of the simultaneous roles industrialization played with respect to reducing poverty. To excite export-led industrialization, the NEP requirements were suspended and that at the very least suggests in some parts of the economy, the NEP was an obstacle. Further technical issues involve inconsistent poverty definition used throughout the years as well as the question why similar poverty reduction happened in in neighboring countries that had no NEP. Crediting the NEP alone ignores the competing factors that achieved the same goal through opposite means. But I will not go too deeply about it here as I am more interested in the second claim.
I think the second claim can be accepted without much protest. At least, as much as the following statistics can say (if we accept over-representation of one particular group in a sector is equivalent to identifying that group with a particular economic function):
The chart shows the ethnic distribution for various economic roles has come closer to actual population demographics by 2000 and 20100 than it was in 1970 (with the exception of agriculture; I left the sales and services sector out because official definitions changed between those years. I could make them comparable but I really do not want to invest the necessary time researching for it). There is a better representation of the population demographics within those sectors in 2000 than 40 years earlier, which suggests any one Malaysian ethnicity has become less associated with a particular role, notwithstanding agriculture.
This does not mean such association has been eliminated altogether. One instance where identification has become stronger is in the civil service (apart from agriculture as seen above):
But that is not the reason why I feel Malaysia has not eliminated identification of race by economic function, even when some reversal seems to be happening within some fields among Malaysia. Among Malaysians, you can see progress towards that direction.
A new source of ethnic identification by economic function began in the 1990s when Malaysia welcomed a new wave of migrant workers into the country during the boom years.
The NEP focused on Malaysians citizens only and it may have achieved success within its defined limits. Yet, the Malaysian society is bigger than the population size of its citizens. Out of the 31 million population, at least 10 per cent are foreigners, possibly double that if the unofficial numbers are to be believed.
And these foreigners – the one taking the low-paying jobs – are identified by their economic functions. Nepalese for security guards. Bangladeshis for manual labor. Indian for mamak-like restaurants. Indonesians as maid, until recently. For the more expensive restaurants, the English speaking servers are Filipinos. It is a generalization, but more often than not, it will hit the mark quite frequently.
Malaysia’s migrant worker policy contributes to the strengthening of the identification problem. The government has a policy of allowing certain nationalities are allowed to work in specific sectors. And the tendency for migrant and networking effect adds up to the concentration of workers with the same racial, ethnicity or national background.
 — Jomo Kwame Sundaram. The New Economic Policy and Interethnic Relations in Malaysia. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. September 2004.
 — Khoo Boo Teik. Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance in the Public Sector. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. December 2005.
 — Department of Statistics Malaysia. Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristic 2010. July 2013