Counting Ethnicity in Malaysia: the Complexity of Measuring Diversity*

Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies 2009; 46: 5-32


Nagaraj S, Lee K-H, Tey N-P, Ng C-W, Pala J


Malaysia has long been concerned with the ethnic dimensions in society. A driver of government policy since the early 1970s, it is factored into the production of official statistics. Data on ethnicity is therefore very important for monitoring and strengthening public policies that seek to address ethnic imbalances. This paper examines the complexity of defining and measuring ethnicity across time and across different official documents. The paper highlights the difficulties in collecting ethnic data and shows how creative the data collection agencies have been over the years in defining and redefining ethnicity as Malaysian society and needs evolve. The experience of Malaysia indicates that not only does measurement of ethnic data support policy but that policy can also drive ethnic measurement in data. The discussion raises important questions on how ethnic groups have been defined, the purpose for which such data is gathered and how the data is gathered. The problem is not the data themselves but how they are used to formulate, implement and monitor policies. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]


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