Rejoinder on job ‘apartheid’

(This post was published at The Malaysian Insider)

Lee Hwok Aun’s response to my post which critiqued Awang Hitam’s New Straits Times article on apartheid in Malaysia’s private sector is disappointing.

First, he berates me for not sufficiently challenging the column’s attempt to compare the position of Malaysian Chinese with the white supremacy and apartheid government of South Africa.

Second, he complains that I have simply re-launched what in his view is “misguided criticism” of his co-authored research.

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Instead of focusing his ire on me, Lee and his co-author, Muhammed Abdul Khalid, should have been the first to respond to Awang Hitam for the way in which the NST columnist cited their research as the columnist’s opening salvo against Malaysian Chinese business practices.

No self-respecting scholar would have permitted his work to be presented as part of the scientific evidence in a scurrilous and mischievous article aimed at inflaming racial sentiments.

The fact that the article appears in the country’s premier officially sanctioned English newspaper makes its arguments and content more provocative since the spin and lies in it reaches influential stake players in the policymaking world.

Although the two researchers have little or no control over how their findings are used, Awang’s piece should have generated an immediate rebuttal from the two researchers. This they failed to do.

One possible reason is that Awang lauded and highlighted their “scientific work and its well-established methodology”, giving it unusual prominence.

The inference one might draw is that Lee and Muhammed are in agreement with their work being cited as evidence of apartheid-like practices of Chinese business concerns.

Impact of Lee and Muhammed’s work

Awang’s article is – in fact – not the first to cite the work of the two researchers as evidence when slamming Chinese businesses and community for discrimination against Malays.

Within the Malay blogging community, the findings of Lee and Muhammed are held up as proof of the economic oppression of Malays by Chinese and as justification for discriminatory policies by the government targeting the non-Malays.

In one sense, Lee is correct in that the research’s shelf life is still not over as its findings are reinforcing the views of Malay chauvinistic groups seeking to shackle non-Malays with more hard-line discriminatory policies.

Why did Lee respond to my post?

I was initially puzzled as to why Lee decided to write in a second time to defend his very preliminary research piece.

In Lee’s words, he sees the research as “shedding some cool light on a heated subject often inflamed by biased anecdotes, limited experience and small samples.”  In his appraisal of the value of his research, he claims that “our conclusions, and questions raised for further research, are based on a careful, conscientious, and methodical field experiment conducted on a large sample.”

Unfortunately, this generous self-evaluation is not shared by the great majority of readers in the English language Internet media where the research has been castigated for its lack of rigour; the limitations of the methodology; the failure to take into account the complexities of hiring decisions in which racial considerations are simply one of many variables; and its premature and misguided conclusions.

Lee and his colleague should have reported their research work and findings – funded by public funds presumably – in a respectable, preferably international economic journal which would have provided feedback from independent peer reviewers.

If they had done so, their work would have been more credible, and the circus like aftermath which I agree is unfortunate could have been avoided.

One final concern

Lee has brushed off the failure to undertake similar research on public sector hiring practices which could have provided an important basis of comparison.

According to Lee’s latest response, this omission was due to “technical reasons”. Well, academics such as Lee may have been born yesterday but this explanation is laughable to the great majority of Malaysians who have experienced racial discrimination by the government in practically every sphere of public sector activity.

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