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Racial inequality and affirmative action in Malaysia and South Africa

Hwok-Aun Lee, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines racial inequality and affirmative action in Malaysia and South Africa, two countries with a politically dominant but economically disadvantaged majority group – the Bumiputera in Malaysia, and blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa. We aim to contribute comparative perspectives and current empirical research on affirmative action regimes and dimensions of inequality directly pertinent to affirmative action, chiefly, racial representation and earnings inequality among tertiary educated workers and in upper-level occupations. We discuss theoretical approaches to inequality and affirmative action, with attention to particular circumstances of majority-favoring regimes, then survey, compare and contrast affirmative action programs and their political economic context in Malaysia and South Africa. In the empirical portions, we outline patterns and evaluate determinants of racial inequality, focusing on the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. On Malaysia, we find that Bumiputera access to tertiary education has rapidly increased, but also observe disproportionate difficulties among Bumiputera degree-holders in participating in labor markets and in attaining upper-level occupations. Bumiputera representation at managerial and professional levels has remained static and dependent on the public sector. Econometric results indicate that quality of tertiary education impacts on the prospect of attaining upper-level jobs, and that Bumiputera are more adversely affected. Lack of data restricts our assessment of racial earnings inequality to a deduction that Bumiputera young graduates have experienced relatively greater decline in their earnings capacity. On South Africa, we find that blacks have steadily increased access to tertiary education, although disparities in quality of institutions and in student performance persist, which disproportionately and negatively affect black graduates. We observe that black representation has increased in upper-level, especially professional, occupations, largely in the public sector. We find that white-black earnings disparity declined substantially among degree-qualified workers, while not diminishing or not showing clear patterns among other educational and occupational groups. We conclude by considering, within the constraints of each country’s political economic context, implications that arise from our findings. Most saliently, while affirmative action raises quantitative attainment of tertiary education and representation in upper-level occupations for the beneficiary group, inadequate attention to qualitative development of institutions and progressive distribution of benefits may attenuate progress toward the ultimate objective of cultivating broadbased, self-reliant professionals and managers.

Subject Area

Economics|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Lee, Hwok-Aun, "Racial inequality and affirmative action in Malaysia and South Africa" (2010). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3427549.