Malaysian companies face renewed calls to address systemic workplace inequalities, make diversity disclosures

Amid increasing stakeholder expectations for updated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies, a guide tailored to Malaysia’s context has been launched to help corporate leaders deal with issues of fair treatment at the workplace.

Malaysia people
Issues such as race and racism in Malaysia are complex, but should not be sidestepped, say DEI experts. Image: Ravin Rau/ Unsplash

Difficult-to-tackle issues like racial, religious and disability-oriented discrimination that are unique to Malaysian workplaces might complicate efforts to improve diversity and inclusion policies. However, the corporate sector should not shy away from these topics just to be “politically correct”, say leaders frustrated by the lack of progress that the country has made in removing systemic workplace inequalities.

In recent months, Malaysia companies have faced renewed calls to improve on and invest in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies, so as to remove longstanding socioeconomic disparities and problems of discrimination in the workplace. At the launch event of a new implementation guide on DEI policies tailored for local companies, corporate leaders also said that “uncomfortable truths” will need to be confronted for any real progress to be made. 

Anita Ahmad, chief executive of Yayasan MySDG, a government-backed foundation that champions progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said that she has worked on DEI matters in Malaysia for over a decade but has not seen “any movement” in dismantling systemic barriers that disadvantages certain individuals and communities in the private sector. 

The inequity can go beyond gender issues. Anita, citing the example of her own niece who is visually impaired and has struggled to secure full employment in the country despite having a university degree, said companies need to “lead with empathy and fairness”.

“Malaysia’s multicultural makeup is a source of strength,” said Anita, though this also leads to complex problems that companies need to confront that are unique to the country. 

For example, the DEI implementation guide, launched by the CEO Action Network (CEO), a local coalition of corporate leaders focused on sustainability advocacy, highlights Malaysia’s diverse mix of race, ethnicity and religions. Policies aimed at uplifting Bumiputera communities – commonly referring to ethnic Malays and Indigenous communities in the Malaysian context – seek to rectify inequalities, but could introduce complexities for DEI efforts within companies and should be navigated carefully, suggested the guide. 

The incidence of racial discrimination in the workplace also demands attention, it said. A survey conducted by non-profit Architects of Diversity (AOD) last year found that there is a reluctance to raise such grievances within the workplace, and that 64 per cent of Malaysians experienced some form of discrimination in the past year, with 32 per cent citing ethnicity as a key factor. 

The launch of the report comes after chairman of the national stock exchange Bursa Malaysia Abdul Wahid Omar mooted a proposal for companies to be mandated to disclose workforce diversity as a means of enhancing Bumiputera economic participation. The recommendation has been met with mixed responses, with employers concerned that this might compromise business efficiency and bring about trade-offs in competitiveness.

At the launch, AOD’s co-founder Jason Wee said that DEI initiatives should not become box-ticking exercises. Instead, continuous investment is needed in addressing these issues. “It is not a temporary budget plan,” he said.

Issues like race and religion, though difficult, should not be sidestepped too, suggested Wee, though he highlights how there is a “vacuum” when it comes to research that can adequately capture the state of workplace discrimination in Malaysia. “A lot of research still quotes from the West, and that is mainly due to an underinvestment in DEI-related research here.”

On efforts to address equity issues in the workplace, Yasmin Rasyid, chief sustainability officer at Sime Darby Property, said: “I think we play it too safe. We always want to be politically correct.”

“But if you are a company and you want to survive or bring in excellent, capable, talented people, you cannot discriminate,” said Yasmin. “You need to have a high level of empathy.”

Dimensions of diversity

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts should extend beyond gender and consider the full spectrum of diversity dimensions. Image: DEI Implementation Guide for Malaysia/ CEO Action Network

One thing that the new guide does is to contextualise DEI efforts for Malaysia, with local examples and case studies for companies to draw on. 

“The guide was initially meant to be a policy [for companies to adopt], but we realised that DEI is very subjective. How each organisation implements or practices it can look different,” said Emeera Hashim, chief impact officer of boutique sustainability clinic Impacto, which is a CAN member. Emeera led the CAN working group that developed the guide.

The new guide was developed in extensive collaboration with CAN-member companies and refined with input from subject matter experts to ensure its relevance and robustness in the Malaysian context, the group said. Among these experts were representatives from the Malaysian Coalition on Aging, Down Syndrome Association of Malaysia and the Malaysian Association for the Blind.

The guide offers pathways for Malaysian companies to forge a more inclusive and equitable society, said Yayasan MySDG’s Anita.

“In our pursuit of sustainability, a holistic approach is necessary. Focusing solely on climate change, economic growth or technology won’t suffice,” said Anita. DEI must be integrated into sustainability efforts to ensure that all demographics can contribute meaningfully to global sustainability agendas, she said.

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