Sunday, June 04, 2006

Are language requirements necessary for certain jobs?

Imagine this job advertisement: Computer programmer required for a mid-sized software engineering company. No knowledge of any software language necessary. Or how about this advertisement: Accountant required for a public listed company. No accountancy qualifications (ACCA, LICT, etc...) required. Available to start immediately. Is something wrong with these advertisements?

I exaggerate of course. But perhaps this is not too far from what our DPM seems to be implying when it he "urged the private sector to be open in accepting and training local graduates without including certain requirements and looking at their background.'

“I have checked some advertisements, where the criteria for potential employees includes being proficient in Mandarin,” he said when winding up the debate on the Ninth Malaysia Plan at Dewan Negara yesterday.

Let's break down the possible scenarios and try to analyze the situation logically, instead of jumping to unnecessary conclusions.

There might be a few reasons why being proficient in Mandarin is necessary or at least highly recommended for certain jobs.

Firstly, there is a category of jobs where knowing Mandarin is a 'technical' requirement. Translation jobs, for example, would fall into this category. Customer service agents or call centers jobs that cater exclusively to Chinese speaking customers would be other examples.

Presumably, our DPM is not referring to this category of jobs when he is objecting towards Mandarin proficiency as a job requirement.

Secondly, there is a category of jobs where knowing Mandarin, while highly advantageous, would probably not be strictly necessary for a job. There is some element of subjectivity in this category. For example, tour and travel companies such as Reliance which has a large Chinese client base could strictly take non-Mandarin speakers as tour guides, especially for travel to non-Mandarin speaking countries. But in practice, these travel / tour guides are usually required to offer 'commentary' in both Mandarin and English. A tour guide who can only speak English but not Mandarin is at a disadvantage compared to one who is fluent in both Mandarin and English.

Other examples include sales jobs which require a lot of interaction with Chinese speaking customers. I guessing that if you are an agent for a company which sells bicycle parts, you'd be selling to a largely Chinese speaking client base. Indeed, one can argue that proficiency in dialects such as Hokkien and Teochew might be more important than Mandarin in reaching out to this customer base. Strictly speaking, you might not need Mandarin or Chinese dialects to communicate with this customer base. You can probably get by with BM or the 'pasar' version of BM. But if your competitor hires someone who is proficient in Mandarin and in some of the dialects, who do you think is going to win the business of this customer base?

On the most part, employers are not stupid people. They are motivated by making profits. If they want to hire people who are proficient in Mandarin, there is usually a good economic rationale for doing so.

There is of course, a third possibility, whereby employers ARE discriminating when they list Mandarin speaking as a requirement. This might be a largely Chinese company which feels that a non-Chinese or even a non-Chinese speaker would not 'fit in' within the culture and environment of this company. Listing Mandarin speaking as a requirement thus acts as a 'signal' to potential employees as to the kind of company this is. It could also be the case that the employer has discriminatory tendencies and the Mandarin speaking requirement is an outward expression of this tendency.

How will making Mandarin proficiency an optional one, as suggested by Minister of Human Resources, Fong Chan Onn, affect hiring practices?

Unless this is backed up by legislation, my guess is that it wouldn't change anything. For the second category of jobs, where Mandarin speaking is highly advantageous though not necessary from a 'technical' standpoint, employers would still choose to hire those who are proficient in Mandarin even if the advertisement requirements doesn't list it as such.

For the third category of jobs, employers with discrimnatory tendencies will make it clear to non-Mandarin speakers that he or she will not 'fit in' with the rest of the company. Or they could simply choose not to call applicants who cannot speak Mandarin for an interview.

Just to make this clear, it is not racial discrimination here at work. Chinese Malaysians who do not speak Mandarin would also be put at a disadvantage. I speak Mandarin at home with my parents, I love Stephon Chow movies and can understand his jokes, I could probably get by in China bargaining for fake hand bags or DVDs. But I probably cannot translate English into Chinese and vice versa well enough to be a tour guide or speak Mandarin or dialects well enough to make friends with bicycle shop owners and sell them bicycle spare parts.

Short of legislation, we should not expect employers to change their stand, especially in the 2nd category of jobs. And legislation would probably make employers in the 3rd category more resentful than they already are.

We understand the political rationale underlying the DPM's objections.

But we also have to understand the reality of the global economy. Mandarin proficiency is going to be more important over time, not less, both locally and internationally. The number of Chinese tourists going abroad and coming to Malaysia means that knowledge of Mandarin will be at a premium especially in the service industry catering to these tourists. Multinational ompanies at especially interested in hiring Malaysians to work in major cities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China because of their proficiency in Mandarin and English. My sister, who studied in Kuen Cheng from Std. 1 to Form 5 and also is very proficient in English, currently works in Shanghai and can arguably get any job in her field (CRM) in Greater China because of her language proficiencies as well as her technical abilities.

Many non-Chinese Malaysians are already aware of this. Hence, the increase in the number of non-Chinese students enrolled in Chinese primary schools. I myself am trying to brush up my written and spoken Mandarin. I want to be able to read the bible in Chinese, read Chinese newspapers and Chinese websites, watch the many interesting current affairs programs on the Pheonix channel and last but not least, to learn how to sing more Emil Chou and Jackie Cheung songs (or at least sing along with others).

Instead of looking at Mandarin requirements as a threat, we should look at this as an opportunity and embrace it, instead of running away from it or shutting it down.

25 comments:

Liz said...

I was shocked to read the article in The Star online recently about this issue.

I am a msian chinese and i speak mostly english at home. When I entered college, I met new friends who studied in chinese medium schools. They taught me how to speak mandarin.

I am currently studying in australia. I managed to get friends from taiwan and china who are here to learn english. I am proud to say that I am able to communicate with them in their mother tongue. Though not very fluently but we manage to understand each other.

Learning an extra languge be it mandarin, french, italian or any foreign language at all will definitely give positive effects. Mr. DPM seemed reluctant to make his rakyat more marketable.

What happens if Japanese market is rising and employers starts listing 'proficient in Japanese' as one of the criterias? Is that termed discriminating too?

Anonymous said...

Although the DPM does not say it explicitly, it is understood that he meant 'racial discrimination', since it is unlikely that he is talking about something like 'skills discrimination'.

I believe the problem is the concept of language education somehow gets tied in with group identity. In the case of malaysia, it is either with regards to chinese or tamil, which would lead to a discussion of ethnic identity, or with regards to english, whereby the topic will be economic stratification, or urban-rural divide. Other languages are not taught in public schools, and thus receive little attention.

What the DPM does not realise is that language requirements does not imply ethnic requirements. For example, I know of Iban students in chinese primary school who outperform ethnic chinese classmates in chinese, both orally and in writing. On he other hand, I know of chinese students who can speak mandarin, but cannot write. On the basis of merit, and all else being equal, the former are more likely to get a job requiring chinese proficiency.

On another note: Never use another language or dialect to say something bad about someone when he or she is around. There is a chance that he or she understand that particular language.

黄德峻 said...

people who knows more languages do have the prior to be hired.
i wonder whether we're in a communism society now

Anonymous said...

this issue had been debated before over at jeffooi's blog. the arguments there range from mandarin being an additional skill to it simply being disciminatory. there were some valid points discussed before, and KM rightly mentioned it all. the argument is that mandarin proficiency requirement is usually for the purpose of selecting chinese-only candidates since the recruiting companies consist almost exclusively of chinese employees. so the ability to speak mandarin or cantonese will be an added advantage to "fit in".

to differentiate between advertisements that discriminate and those who actually require the language as a skill is easy. those with intent to discriminate will very likely say something like "Mandarin proficiency required" compared to "Mandarin proficiency will be advantageous".

it's easy to point out which companies who do require the ability to speak Mandarin as a skill compared to the ones that have intent to discriminate. the smaller companies (which incidently consist of chinese-only staff) will be brash and upfront when requiring that candidates be able to speak chinese, hence showing the discriminatory policy that the DPM is talking about. the big MNCs will in the first place inform of the job responsibilities, and then mentioning the importance of a second language in the line of work.

Anonymous said...

A "possible" solution is to adopt something like what the French are trying to implement - that employees send in a CV just stating their qualifications without their name - as their problem is the discrimination against Muslims names.

To "overcome" all the discriminations here in Malaysia, we can probably start ean employment system where employees do not post their name, and just post their skills. Hence advertisers do not need to purposely state their "preference" , eg: certain race only tenders, mandarin proficiency ... At least this method can curb the open discrimination.

Anonymous said...

I studied in National School, studied overseas, worked in several foreign lands and each time acquired the language I needed - Spanish, Italian, Portugese and Japanese. If one is determined, it never too hard to learn another language.

Anonymous said...

How about a certain race are encouraged to apply for jobs, doesn't that smack of racism?

Anonymous said...

No use one-lah. How much can the policy do? If the policy disallow language requirement in advertisement, they can still be biased. Why? Because how the hell you know language is not part of their consideration during the interview? The selection is very subjective. You can't control that? Just like they can't put "bumiputra only" so they come out with "bumiputra is encourage to apply". So, how the hell does the interviewee know he is rejected because of his race? Even if it is, they will not tell you because you are rejected because of your race! F*ck if I'm the employer, knowing such policy exists, and I really need someone able to speak mandrin, do you think I will tell you you rejected because do can't speak mandrin? I'll just tell your skill does not meet my expectations or some other reasons.

Anonymous said...

talk about discrimination, this is what we should do: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060604/ap_on_re_us/fedex_discrimination_lawsuit

but is Malaysia ready for such a cultural revolution? me thinks it'll take at least 2 generations (40~50years). similar with education, u can't change it overnight, it takes time, umpteen years minimum.

Anonymous said...

Koshy Pillai is 'master of everything'
Learn from him! He survived!

Anonymous said...

Why no comment or view is expressed by our DPM when Japanese MNCs stipulated people with ability to communicate in Japanese in their respective advertisements?

More examples like call centres for international banks and logistic companies, etc.

Come on! We live in a globalized market economy!

Anonymous said...

DPM's statement is very interesting, but a conflicting one!

I still recall when Ministry of Education decides to ban those students without a minimum Credit 6 in SPM Bahasa Malaysia paper to join Sixth Form Science Stream way back in 1987!

Who cares one's score is 8A1's in all other subjects but a P7 in BM paper?

As a result, good students are ignored a proper place of training/studying in Sixth Form provided by government schools, and instead they have to take out monies and go to substandard place for their sixth form education.

I wonder, how many bright but poor students have decided to stop sixth form due to this government policy then?

And again, if one manages to score 5A's in STPM, but with no Credit in SPM BM paper, sorry for you. No University seat for you as well!!

As a result, our bright and prospective future scientists have to say bye-bye to our system, and go somewhere for their tertiary education!

Who stood for these students then????

Come on! We needs a STATEMAN!

I am still wondering what is the logical reason then to bar bright science students from sixth form and varsities just because they cannot get a CREDIT IN Bahasa Malaysia Paper??

No wonder we are never near in any top rank world-class universities that would possibly produce prospective Nobel Laurette..

Why? Because we deny some of our bright and promising students due to our language policies...

and also social reengineering policies!

Tony P said...

Simple Question:

Will "Candidates are expected to be fluent and competent in written and spoken English" be regarded as discriminatory as well?

:) Tony P

Anonymous said...

When our bright science students are denied places in our IPTAs due to language policies, these institutions start to lose their credibility!

It is a natural expectation that bright Korean students would want to list Seoul University as their first choice, just like Japanese students would want to go to Univ of Tokyo!


Imagine, if our premier IPTAs cannot attract our bright students, how on earth we are going to be world-class univesity?

We should redefine what is the meaning of national universities!

A national university is the university of people, by the people and for the people!

Anonymous said...

..no big deal

You hire a man based on his history and fire him based on his performance.

Anonymous said...

solution for employers...

"Must liased with mandarin speaking clients"

Instead of...

"Must be able to speak mandarin"

Anonymous said...

"Candidates are expected to be fluent and competent in written and spoken English"

Why dont u put that in your job advertisements Tony? I dont think that constitutes to discrimination.

BeFair2All said...

All sorts of discrmination exist in our nation and actively practised by our government. Discrimination is our way of life and heritage sustained by our government.

Don't you see in our national papers many advertisements on 5% discount given only to so-called economically disadvantaged bumiputra buyers to buy RM3 million to RM5 million bungalows or condos?

Najib knows this, otherwise he does not deserved to be our deputy PM. How dare he wants certain people to stop practising discrimination? That will be double standard and discriminating against people who follow the mainstream practice of discrimination!

ShaolinTiger said...

Great post.

I have to say though, even if there is a legislation, it won't make a bit of difference.

The only thing that will change is the advert won't display a requirement for Mandarin or languageX, but when the employer sees the CV or interviews the person, they won't employ them if they don't speak Mandarin. Simple, removing it from the advert just wastes time, it doesn't change the fact that the person still needs to speak a certain language to be suitable for the job.

Anonymous said...

Look, knowledge of mandarin is a skill requirement; not race discrimination.

A Malay or Indian who can speak mandarin would be more qualified than a non-mandarin speaking chinese if there is such a requirement in the advertisement.

Please let private companies decide on the human resource they pay for to run their business so they can pay taxes to government.

I have come accross many job advertisement who says "bumiputra positions". Well, is this double standard?

Anonymous said...

It is well known fact that even a well qualified (Malaysian) medical specialist cannot land job at our government hospital if he/she does not have a credit (minimum C6) in SPM Bahasa Malaysia.

Mind you, a pass at P7 is NOT enough for the job!

Even though one has a strings of
MRCP, FRCP, or even PhD etc attached after his/her name...

But ironically we spent millions to employ those foreign medical
"experts" from certain developing countries, whom of them, cannot even speak proper English, coupled with doubtful medical skills??

Like the saying goes, mother crab is trying to teach young crabs on how walk straight!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is anyone who can fight with the "invicible hand" in this highly-globalized era. Countries, e.g. North Korea, Butan, or maybe Laos may able to do so by eliminating any international collaboration. For the sake of Malaysian, plz dont head us to this kind of circumstances. No one can close the door and do business internally. The population in Malaysia who is able to speak Mandarin, is indeed one of the competitive advantages of our country. Please try to acknowledge it and make use of it.

Anonymous said...

Our western outlook and pragmatic down south neighbour has realized their past mistakes on neglecting Mandarin education.

They act fast to remedy this such as by reviving Mandarin education and sending scholars to China.

Like the anon@0916PM, we should recognise that having a population that speak diverse languages, be it Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Malay, etc indeed is a blessing in disguise.

It is the one of comparative advantages we have as the meaning "truly Asia" means!

Imagine we can tap in many markets because we can communicate with them.

Our DPM should recognise that!

Indeed it is blessing to be born in this wonderland where we can master more than one languages...

Ya, my Korean friends always admire me for that!

BeFair2All said...

Yes, Malaysians and Singaporeans, by any standard, are brilliant as most of them are fluent in more than one language (speaking, reading, and writing) and dialect.

It's a pity the Malaysian government is reluctant to recognize this, promote it, and capitalize on this advantage in the current global society that we live in.

However, the Singaporean government has recognized this and is actively implementing actions that encourage its people to master as many languages as possible. Just look at the recent decision of its MOE to improve the teaching of English in Singapore, despite the fact that English is the medium of instruction in schools n Singapore.

Anonymous said...

Discrimination and equal opportunity principles have never meant to protect people from failing to acquire a skills ( mandarin language skill) in this case.

And it is so true that employers are there to make money, and if mandarin skill helps him make (more) money, he has every right to ask for it.

Actually, on the other hand, there are post within chinese companies which are reserved for malays as those requires interaction with malay communities and only malays can understand well the cultural background of those community and perform the job effectively.

Rather than try to ban those wording in the ads, how about goverement sponsor chinese language program for whoever who like to pick up the mandarin language skill which gives significant competitive advantage ?

casper