The struggle for equal hiring policies in Malaysia

photo myMarek Kiczkowiak: This article was written in a response to my enquiry about the hiring policies in a big teacher training project in Malaysia. The author of this article, who runs the project,  would prefer not to disclose his name. His bio note can be found below.

Equal hiring policies is a subject that I too feel quite strongly about and have striven to honour that belief by recruiting under the policy that credentials and ability are the main criteria and nationality is a secondary issue.

This particular project was started in 2011 and we were so pleased that the initial contract with the Malaysian Government had the criteria of academic qualifications, ESL qualifications and ‘Native Speaker Competence’.  This word competence was extremely important to me as I am so much aware that the simple term of ‘Native Speaker’ is extremely difficult to define.  You have attempted to give a good definition of this in your site, but it is still a subjective opinion and open to different interpretations depending upon the proclivities of the user.

By and large at the commencement of this project the Malaysian Ministry of Education accepted candidates based on this definition, though subsequent officers who replaced the original sponsors of the project have had various views about this definition and have denied applicants based on nationality rather than competence.  I have had considerable correspondence with the Ministry regarding this issue, specifically for them the define exactly what they mean by a native speaker, but have so far received no definitive response.  I have, also to be very careful about this as they are the paymasters and as such they make the rules of employment.

Actually the main issue we find in Malaysia is not so much the non-native speaker aspect (we employ numerous personnel from Europe both west and east) but one of nationality and race.  Whether we like it or not, there are perceptions amongst some people that other races are ‘inferior’, stereotyping them into different educational or roles depending not on their individual ability, but on a national trait.  For example, in Malaysia the majority of ‘foreign workers’ who are employed in the manual labour sector are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar etc and the perception is that anyone who is employed as a professional from these countries would not have the credibility of personnel from other more prestigiously viewed countries such as Europe, USA, Australia etc.

Whilst this perception is incredibly subjective and seems to lack any form of credibility, it is something that is deep rooted in our psyche and is very difficult to shake.  We seem to expect that certain nationalities or races fulfil certain roles – there is always something strange in eating in an Indian restaurant that is not staffed by anyone who does not look ‘Indian’.  A purely racist and totally illogical point of view, but nevertheless is a commonly accepted phenomenon.  Whilst we seem to be slowly shaking off these nationality stereotypes, progress in this field is not as rapid in some areas of the world as it is in others

Photo under Creative Commons from:
Photo under Creative Commons from:

I have submitted applications for very suitably qualified personnel from India and the Philippines that have been rejected on the grounds of ‘non-native speakers’ and despite my appeals to the definition of ‘native speaker competence’ their applications have still be turned down.  The hypocrisy of this situation was exemplified when I submitted the credentials of two applicants on the same day.  One was a lady who had a MA, 7 years teaching experience and was already in Malaysia, the second was an applicant with a BA, with 4 year’s experience and was still working abroad.  The first was denied, the second was accepted.  The first was an Iranian the second an Italian.  The Iranian was denied as she was a non-native speaker, but the Italian was accepted!

I must also emphasise, that despite some of the anomalies stated above, I have been able to employ numerous applicants of different races from various countries and they have been accepted and worked extremely well on the project.  It would appear that occasionally my applications may fall on the desk of an ‘un-enlightened’ officer and that is where I have difficulties.  On the whole the Government has been extremely supportive and helpful in this matter

I will, however, continue to submit applications from so called non-native speakers and constantly challenge the odd (not meaning peculiar) official who seems to stereotype applications.  The need for your website surely demonstrates that this is still an uphill battle, but it is one that I think is worth pursuing and whilst I am the project manager of this programme will continue to abide by the principle of credentials (which include personality and attitude) over and above nationality.

Author’s bio note: Married with two teenage daughters studying in local college / school in Malaysia.  Came to ESL late in life but for the past twenty four years has worked in Universities in China lecturing in Linguistics and specifically psycholinguistics and also taught communicative English to students from every age group from Kindrergarten to retirees, Special needs children to business executives.  For the past ten years have been involved in teacher training programmes sponsored by the Malaysian Ministry of Education as both a trainer and a manager.  Personal details available on request.

0 thoughts on “The struggle for equal hiring policies in Malaysia”

  1. Excellent post, anonymous – and thank you for your professionalism and persistence. It is so sad that where the ‘native’/’non-native’ divide is overcome, it is replaced by yet another form of divide. I’m not far away from you (Singapore) so I know what you are describing, but I like that this post also focuses on the positives and the possibility for true (if gradual) change, one project at a time.

  2. That’s a brilliant writeup, thank you.
    Ironically, I’d also be rejected by the Malaysian Ministry of Education if I ever do plan to apply for this position – reason being, I’m Malaysian! What’s interesting though, is the fact that I’m qualified enough to work at my current institution, one I deem to be far more qualified than the ministry in hiring language teachers. That would make me good enough to teach international TEFL learners, but not good enough to train local teachers! How do we sum this up? 🙂

    On a positive note, I do love the fact that waves of change has been set in motion. It’s truly thrilling, such a feel good factor in the world of ELT!:)


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  4. This is a very touchy subject and whether in our lifetime it will change I don’t know. Racism certainly exists in this field. I think it will depend on what the students themselves believe about the whole idea of what ‘learning English’ means to them.

    They say English is an international language. I strongly disagree, English is not an international language, it is the ‘English’ language, and the only reason why it could ever be considered ‘international’ is that it is the most widely travelled language, mainly due to the British Empire.

    I believe that English or Spanish or Japanese or any language for that matter, is far more than the words on a page. It has a very strong cultural link, and these days I’m not talking about English being linked exclusively to the English but more to the ‘western world’. So who are considered the native English speakers? Those countries that were not only colonised by England, but also has the majority of the population from British or western ancestry e.g. US, UK, Australia, etc.

    My experience has shown me that the reason why students or employers demand ‘western teachers as native English teachers’ is not just about the way they speak English or how they understand the grammar. It appears to me that the average ESL student sees English as something related to the western world, or even perhaps the developed world, and so when they learn English they not only want to become fluent in the language for whatever personal educational or business purposes that is, they also want that ‘taste of the western world’, which means they want the ‘western teaching style’ and the connection to the ‘western lifestyle’. That’s why (it seems to me) an Italian (even though they were never colonised by England) may get it over an Iranian. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it is right, but I do believe it is what it is.

    Your analogy of an Indian restaurant is perfect. I personally have never been to an Indian restaurant that had non Indian people working there (that I know of). To me I’m sure, if it had all white or Japanese people cooking and serving me Indian food, I swear the taste would never have been as good (psychologically I would have told myself), even though it may have not been any different at all…. The whole reason I chose to eat at the Indian restaurant was not just for the taste of the food, I was expecting something else very exotic and interesting to go with it, and if I hadn’t got it, I would have felt short changed. So what is that all about? Whatever it is, like it or hate it, it is real!

    Saying that, I personally have worked with local Malaysian, international, and western teachers and my experience to date (17 years of working in the Malaysian Education system) is that there are some fantastic local, international and western ESL teachers, and their passport does not necessarily mean they are better teachers nor do their qualifications or experience. But to me the most profound difference lies in the attitude of the teacher. Therefore the ultimate responsibility for any kind of change in this dilemma lies with the employer ensuring there is a rigorous recruitment schedule so that they recruit only the best of the best attitudes, and follow through with appropriate professional development on a regular basis.

    I personally have found from my extensive recruitment experience here in Malaysia, that there are some ‘native English’ nationalities I prefer to steer clear of simply because I have had constant ‘attitude’ problems with them in the past and I have to say the same for some ‘non-native English’ nationalities too. So to me though I wouldn’t necessarily eliminate them from the recruitment process because of their nationality, I would need to be wowed by them somehow during the interview for me to give them a second look.

    Just sharing my thoughts and experiences…

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