By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Edge 5 February 2012
The Edge Daily Online, 15 February 2012

On February 8, 2012, the nation will celebrate what would have been the 109th birthday of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the Father of Malaysia. On the same day, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) will be two years old. We will hold a free public event to commemorate both Tunku’s birthday and our anniversary on Saturday February 11, at Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur.

I am pleased that in the two short years, we have achieved quite a lot for a small think tank. The icing on the cake was when we were announced as the 13th best new think tank in the world by a global think tank survey published by the University of Pennsylvania last month.

Just like any other start-ups, the journey was not always rosy. We are just a small team of individuals who want to do something good for the country. We do not have connections to the top, let alone the resources like some other well-connected organisations.

The most important thing for us is the freedom and independence to say things as we see it, without the need to sugarcoat our comments. This means we have to steer carefully in the heavily partisan waters of Malaysia. Many times we have been accused of siding with Pakatan Rakyat, only to be accused a few days later of being a tool of Barisan Nasional.

I suppose the public, and policymakers, are still trying to judge where we ‘belong’. And in doing so, they try to box us in the traditional pro-government versus anti-government quarters. This is impossible to do. We side with the principles of rule of law, limited state, free market and individual liberty – which Tunku consistently promoted – not with any particular political party.

Some friends suggested that we should find a government ‘godfather’ who can provide us with patronage. But in Malaysia nowadays there are already too many ‘government-linked yayasan’ (charity) crowding the civil society market, in exactly the same way that government-linked companies crowd out true entrepreneurs. We do not want to be another pseudo-yayasan – i.e. entities that are actually mere agencies of vested political interests masquerading as non-governmental organisations.

Policymakers in Malaysia really should look into making it easier to do good. I was involved in setting up four charities when I lived in England. When I moved back to Kuala Lumpur to set up IDEAS, I was under the impression that it shouldn’t be too difficult to form a charity here.

All the charities that I helped set up in England took just around one month each to register. And the process was straightforward too. You know exactly what you need to do and what documents to submit. The costs were minimal because the bulk of it can be done through the Charity Commission’s website. So, how difficult can it be back home?

How wrong can I be!

It turns out that forming a yayasan in Malaysia is not an easy thing. It is as if our bureaucracy is bent on making life difficult for those who want to do good. Registering a yayasan is a convoluted process with so many uncertainties. Try searching online for an official guideline, and I bet you will not find one.

Do you know which ministry or government agency looks after yayasan? Well, to register IDEAS we had to deal with officials from at least four different agencies, none of whom could provide a clear picture about who is responsible for what.

At the end it took us 15 months, plus many angry phone calls and frustrated meetings, before we received our registration certificate. And it cost us almost RM25,000 in fees and staff time. Yet that is not the end of the story. We will still have to wait many more months, and spend even more money, to apply for tax-exemption. It turned out that becoming registered does not mean you are tax-exempt yet. You still need to get a different set of approvals from a different authority.

Of course ours is only one case study. A senior officer with a government-linked investment company (GLIC) once told me that he managed to register a new foundation for his GLIC in just four months after a certain “Tan Sri called up the Minister”. If this major GLIC with all their resources and high-level contacts took four months to get it done, what hope will a typical Malaysian have if they don’t have the right phone numbers to call?

If we look at the bigger picture, civil society entities such as yayasan are part of the wider private sector. True-blood charities – not the pseudo-yayasan set up by vested political interests – are actually private entities set up by private individuals to do good things for the country. In many countries – for example in Germany as discussed in IDEAS’ latest research paper on social market economy – civil society organisations and foundations play important roles to deliver public services which in Malaysia is still monopolised by the government.

The potential to develop the “third” sector as an important facet of our nation’s growth still exist. To do that, the government must firstly recognise the potential, and then commit to making it easier to set up charities or yaysan.

The haphazard registration process and the multiplicity of agencies handling registration must be made fixed. I suggest it is time we consider the establishment of a Malaysian Charity Commission.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

1 Comment

  • Azreena 2013 Jun 02 / 11:56

    I couldn’t agree more to your articles. The fact that running a charity organisations here is like running for popularity games or some-what. I was an ex-executive committee of an environmental NGO that actually can do more but just prefer o do a certain much to maintain the qualification and the budget approved. And if one has an idea to run it bigger, it has been politicised internally to accept the program unless it is highlighted accordingly. I decided to let them drop me off the team. Since then, I run my own non-registered, collecting volunteers and sponsors and run it under event company, which is much more faster and easier. As long I can sleep at night smiling and know that I have done good to the society. It might be small, but at least I know we are doing it to help, pure-heartedly.

    Malaysian Charity Commission should be the only monitoring body to see how much the charity organization has performed and the sustainability of the effort, rather then one-time big bang show. I would love to get involve. Count me in!

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