KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysian executives urged the government Tuesday not to make race a criterion for hiring, reflecting fears that some companies will have to employ more ethnic Malays at the expense of minority Chinese and Indians.
Companies listed on Malaysia's stock exchange are generally expected to have a significant number of employees from the Malay majority. The rule — part of affirmative action policies to help Malays — has not been strictly enforced, but most large firms mix Malay staff with Chinese and Indians.
Though Malays are in a majority in the population, ethnic Chinese have long dominated the country's commercial sector.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced Friday that starting next year, publicly listed firms must disclose their employment composition by race as part of efforts to boost corporate social responsibility.
The directive has prompted debate about whether the government might pressure companies to ensure that their racial mix mirrors Malaysia's ethnic makeup more closely.
Puan Chan Cheong, managing director of broadband technology provider Green Packet Bhd., said firms need to hire people who are "the best fit for the job, regardless of race," in order to compete internationally.
"We employ according to merits," Puan told The Associated Press. "Competency is the key consideration, not racial composition."
Gooi Seong Lim, managing director of investment holding company Crescendo Corp. Bhd., said the company sometimes has no choice but to recruit mostly Chinese and Indians for civil engineering works because there are too few Malay candidates.
"I believe the government will be reasonable," he told the AP. "It would be very difficult to conform to a strict racial breakdown."
Malays comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people. Chinese form some 25 percent, Indians nearly 10 percent and the rest belong to other minorities. The ethnic communities have coexisted peacefully since racial riots left at least 200 dead in 1969. They were sparked by Malay frustration over Chinese wealth.
The New Straits Times newspaper quoted Second Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop as saying the government will not necessarily penalize companies that fail to have employees from all races after the new directive takes effect next year.
"We are not saying we will take action," the Times quoted him as saying. It was not immediately clear how the new directive would be enforced.
Decades-old affirmative action policies — geared toward helping Malays catch up with the Chinese by giving them privileges in areas like education, housing, bank loans and government contracts — are one of Malaysia's most politically sensitive subjects.