Could a language requirement for jobs also be racist?

Could a language requirement for jobs also be racist?
By Zan Azlee

I have a little bit of a dilemma playing in my head regarding the recent debate of which is the lesser of two evils – the fact that a racial quota is a requirement for matriculation and university application or whether having certain language requirements for employment can be considered racist or not.

The recent criticism against the Ministry of Education over the 90-10 quota system for matriculation entry is pretty valid.

I even wrote about how I believed that this is wrong, yet also understood that a total elimination at the moment might be too drastic a move.

As much as I do believe in what I wrote, that isn’t what I am trying to argue this time.

However, what I do want to bring up this time in my column is that yes most of us do agree that a racial quota system for education is blatant racism.

But language requirement for employment can also be used as a racist tool.

I believe that if an organisation claims specific languages as requirements for particular job positions, it needs to state what those reasons are.

Say for example, Company A states that they require an employee to be able to speak Mandarin. They need to state why that is so.

If Company A has lots of dealings with companies, organisations and agencies in China or Taiwan, then the validity of the reason is justified.

But if Company A is a normal Malaysian company that deals with mainly Malaysian companies, then why is Mandarin an important necessity?

Being in Malaysia, the lingua franca of any operations should be Bahasa Malaysia as the national language first, followed very closely with English because it is actually very widespread in this country as a language of business.

Nobody living in Malaysia can deny that.

What is the use of a national language then if it isn’t a language that can be understood nationwide?

Sure, it is always an advantage for anyone to be multilingual. In fact, both my daughters, who speak English and Bahasa Malaysia, are also learning Mandarin and I even learned French when I was younger (I’m currently learning Spanish so I be cool like my favourite actor Diego Luna!).

I have to stress that I am not saying having language requirements shouldn’t be allowed.

What I am saying is that it can also be misused as a tool of segregation and racism. Racist employers can use it to filter out people from ethnicities that they do not prefer to be working with.

But of course, it can go either way.

I can make a comparison with the issue of landlords who want to rent rooms or homes to people but then place racial or religious requirements for potential tenants. It can be a racist action or it could just be a matter of syncing the right lifestyles together.

Some landlords are concerned and sensitive towards how different people with different life practices would live together.

For example, Muslim and non-Muslim tenants living together and sharing a kitchen while considering halal and non-halal food consumption. While some landlords can just be totally racist.

We do not live in such a black and white world – what we need is a society that can also see the grey area so that there is acceptance and understanding.

Right now, the debate and criticism that is being thrown at the Education Ministry and Maszlee Malik is in such a black and white perspective. There has been no attempt to see it from a more holistic point of view and no one wants to accept that there could be a whole grey area to consider.

I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t criticise.

We should go all out to criticise any issue that we see could affect our society adversely. It is our right as Malaysians anyway.

But we need to make sure that our criticism isn’t narrow and that it contributes to actual nation-building instead of just criticism for criticism sake.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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