Tackling discrimination beyond headscarf and turban controversies

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The process of tackling ethnic and religious discrimination should evolve into addressing larger issues of structural injustice, writes Ronald Benjamin.

Since the issue of Muslim women not being allowed to wear the hijab when working in the front- lines of hotel was highlighted in the media, there has been a flurry of criticism from both sides of the political divide and from NGOs.

Some have viewed it as discrimination based on the religious beliefs of Muslims.

It is an issue that needs to be probed further, which requires reason and understanding, instead of a hysterical response. Win-win solutions could be worked out through dialogue and understanding.

The question is, why does such perceived discrimination generate more attention than subtle discrimination at the workplace, which has been going on for years in this country? A Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research survey revealed that 74% of Indian youths and 70% of Malay youths had difficulty entering the job market. The figure for Chinese youths was 45%.

In this report, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress secretary general alleged that certain sectors took into account the job seekers’ ethnic backgrounds in their hiring processes. Why was there no hue and cry among politicians about this discrimination? Is Minister Nazri’s understanding of discrimination only limited to issues involving turbans and headscarves?

Subtle and substantive discrimination takes place in various forms in this country. When I spoke to an Indian Malaysian small businessmen, he told me the price he gets from wholesalers is higher than that secured by businessman from other ethnic groups, and this makes his business uncompetitive in terms of pricing.

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I hear about the discrimination in the student intakes of public universities. Certain courses seem to be reserved mainly for certain ethnic groups.

Promotions in the public sector are hard to come by for certain minority groups. In the private sector, it is alleged that a certain ethnic group monopolises certain management functions such as finance and purchasing with the excuse that a person needs to speak a certain language, so that suppliers can understand, even though almost everyone can understand Bahasa Malaysia. I also hear of salary differentials between those of various ethnic groups doing the same jobs.

All this issues have been subtlety swept under a carpet of political expediency because politicians do not dare to bring up these issues as they could backfire in electoral battles in the context of our ethnically conscious society.

If certain issues are tackled, it is done without shaking the very foundation that breeds discrimination in the first place. The Indian blueprint is an example of looking for solutions that avoids shaking the foundation that breeds discrimination such as ethno-religious hegemony or even the social economic context of that has seen an influx of millions of foreign workers, who have depressed wages for the working class.

Although ethnic discrimination in the public sector is highlighted, discrimination in the private sector is ignored. What is seen here is full-blown hypocrisy whether among politicians from the Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan. The point here is that politicians should not pick and choose issues of discrimination based on political expediency that merely revolves around symbols.

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In fact, in mature and progressive societies, the process of tackling ethnic and religious discrimination would evolve into addressing larger issues of structural injustice such as economic monopolies that burden the working class of all ethnic communities, or addressing the issue of power being concentrated in the hands of political and economic elites.

We need to look at our social order as a whole to tackle discrimination in a substantive way. Discrimination must be tackled honestly and comprehensively by the government, civil society and corporate organisations so that reforms can be instituted in a meaningful way.

It has to start from the ground among ordinary Malaysians through a quantitative and qualitative survey on discrimination. Yes, we need to tackle the headscarf and turban controversies, but it has to move beyond and address subtle and substantive discrimination.

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