In east Asia’s complex ethnic mix of peoples, the need to avoid racial discrimination which may undermine social stability is understood clearly by governments and businesses. But while experts agree that progress is being made in tackling this potentially corrosive personnel problem, there is still a long way to go.

Even in Singapore, where the promotion of harmony between the country’s Chinese, Malay and Indian communities has been a core goal of government policy since independence in 1965, the problem persists. The number of complaints for workplace discrimination in Singapore between 2011 and 2016 was stable, averaging 400 a year with about 30 cases related to race and religion, according to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) – an autonomous body representing the government, employers and trade unions.

Singapore’s ministry of manpower says it takes a strong view on allegations of workplace discrimination. Complaints are referred to TAFEP for investigation: if an employer is found not to have abided by the country’s guidelines for fair and merit-based employment, TAFEP would refer the complaint to the ministry. Administrative actions that can be taken against erring employers include curtailing work pass privileges required to bring in foreign workers.

Touching on the Singapore experience, Bob Aubrey – a Singapore-based human development expert and author – said the city-state has adopted the model of using guidelines, rather than legislation, to fight workplace discrimination. He stressed that Singapore is recognised internationally for its social integration “which is firmly anchored in a country where people of all races study and live together in a community”.

A parliamentary update released by manpower minister Lim Swee Say noted that 250 companies had been placed on the ministry’s watchlist regarding workplace discrimination by March 2017. This system is complemented by another set of guidelines known as the ‘Fair Consideration Framework,’ where the ministry encourages firms to consider hiring locals for job openings rather than expats. The minister added that the majority on the watchlist had responded positively.

While there is no perfect solution to this sensitive topic, Aubrey said that the Singapore government is doing a good job in making meritocracy one of its core values and encouraging employers to move from discrimination to inclusion. There is less support for government anti-discrimination policies in Malaysia, where experts say lack of transparency by the government is hindering progress. Malaysia-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Pusat KOMAS, which conducts its own annual racial discrimination reports, is critical of this: “Since our government doesn't ideally practise ‘open government’ we as an NGO don’t have any access to the number of reports received with regards to racial discrimination,” Pusat KOMAS programme director, Adli Zakuan told People Management.

A January 2017 report entitled ‘Attitudes and Ethnoreligious Integration: Meeting the Challenge and Maximizing the Promise of Multicultural Malaysia’ published by the CIMB Foundation – the non-profit arm of ASEAN investment bank the CIMB Group – called for more information on the issue: “The government may consider publishing data on social mobility indicators to convey their commitment to fairness, transparency and accountability,” it said. Such data can indicate how the country is evolving over time, it added. Unfair employment opportunities and workplace treatment, including salary and promotion variation by race, are among the issues that need assessing, Zakuan said.

A widely-reported incident of such discrimination came when the local franchise of British cosmetics and toiletries brand The Body Shop posted a job vacancy to hire exclusively ethnic Chinese candidates, Zakuan said, quoting a local media report in the Malay Mail in January 2017. The company later apologised, calling it an “unsanctioned act.”

The Malaysian government is not inactive in this area. Its ongoing 1Malaysia initiative (launched in 2010) promotes national unity by advocating eight values - high performance culture, accuracy, knowledge, innovation, integrity, strong will, loyalty and wisdom.

But Zakuan claimed the CIMB report indicated that the programme has failed to deliver: Malays (the majority ethnic group) associated ‘Malaysian-ness’ with being Malay, not integration with other ethnic groups in a multi-racial Malaysia.

With such divides, misunderstandings over racial differences can occur easily. Claire Smart, head of human resources at recruiter Randstad Southeast Asia, said racial discrimination in the ASEAN workplace is not always committed with malice – and companies can help: “For example, if a group of colleagues in an office speak in a certain language that others cannot understand, it can cause discord between people,” she said.

Organisations should clarify what is considered discrimination and deal with the problem proactively rather than reactively, she said. At Randstad, there are clear policy guidelines stressing the importance of diversity training. It helps employees to understand unconscious bias and teach them methods and tools they can use to boost collaboration, said Smart.

Organisational culture plays a big part in preventing workplace discrimination, she added, for instance through organising initiatives such as interest groups for hobbies or celebrating multinational festivals and holidays.

There are similar concerns in Hong Kong that more work is needed to combat workplace discrimination, even though workplace racial discrimination was made formally illegal by the 2008 Race Discrimination Ordinance. A Hong Kong-based CEO of a leading global executive search firm, who requested anonymity, told People Management that clients frequently insist on Hong Kong-Chinese candidates only.

“We recently had a foreign bank seeking a CEO in order to set up a branch in Hong Kong, and they insisted on a Hong Kong-Chinese candidate [as opposed to mainland Chinese or non-Chinese] because they know that only a Hong Kong-Chinese CEO would get a licence from Hong Kong’s arch conservative central bank [the Hong Kong Monetary Authority],” he said.

“They know the central bank would otherwise turn down their application – not saying, of course, that it is because the CEO is not a HK-Chinese, instead using such claims as ‘there’s insufficient documentation showing this would be beneficial for Hong Kong’s financial system’,” he added. The CEO claimed racial prejudice penetrates deeply into Hong Kong work life, something that his company tries to counter by staffing its Hong Kong bureau in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural manner.

Other critics have highlighted how the recent recruitment of a chairperson for the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission reflected local problems. This top official in charge of fighting racism had to possess “strong language and communication skills, including good command of Chinese and English”, said the commission. Critics told Hong Kong media that this effectively ruled out candidates belonging to non-Chinese groups, which make up around 6 per cent of the population, including Filipinos, Indonesians, Caucasians, Indians, and Nepalese.

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