First published by Shaila Koshy on 6 March 2016
Think tanks have a mighty task, trying to provide all the facts and change the mindsets of the Government and the public, as the country moves toward becoming a truly developed nation.
SEVERAL think tanks got together recently to discuss their relevance as Malaysia canters into the final lap of Vision 2020 and their role beyond that.
“We are concerned about the future and what think tanks can do to shape it,” says ISIS Malaysia chairman and chief executive Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa.
Especially now that we are living “in a world filled with pressing humanitarian issues, the mass migration of people, and transnational threats like illicit trade and climate change,” he adds.
It is agreed that many politicians on both sides of the divide, special interest non-governmental organisations and members of the public are having heated debates in public spaces. The question is, are they making informed arguments?
As Prof Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram, holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at ISIS and a keynote speaker at the roundtable dialogue, notes, there is a lot of debate “based on views strongly held” but these are “not based on research”.
The Government is as guilty.
The flip-flopping in some policies – whether to teach Science and Mathematics in English or whether to implement the Automated Enforcement System – only feeds public perception that research is unimportant and that political considerations will usually overshadow public benefit.
The most recent example would be the Government’s fosbury flop on when or if 1.5 million workers are coming from Bangladesh. If think tanks are the “external brains” of government, surely the decision to sign the MoU with Dhaka would have only been made after careful study by them or the relevant agencies. Or did politics rear its ugly head again?
ISIS Malaysia and the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research (MIER) contributed to the formulation of Vision 2020 and the Third Industrial Master Plan (2006-2020), respectively. Two important policies that have pushed and cajoled Malaysians out of their comfort zones.
As the roundtable discussion indicates, for some, think tanks fill the gap between knowledge and power; for others, they are a means to link knowledge to the masses.
Khazanah Research Institute managing director Datuk Charon Wardini Mokhzani jokes that describing think tanks as “filling the gap between knowledge and power” makes it sound like those in power are totally clueless.
“No, they have some idea but the role of think tanks is to bring great thought and deliberation and to give other ideas.”
He stresses there must be truth in research: “Everybody has their biases but there must be sincerity and truth in the study so we can go forward.”
IDEAS chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan argues that think tanks add value by changing public opinion so society as a whole moves in a more knowledgeable direction.
Tan Sri Michael Yeoh, co-founder and chief executive officer of Asli, says private and independent think tanks should impact and influence public debate.
“There are alternative view points. We need to promote and encourage courageous conversation and be willing to accept the controversy that goes with such conversation and dialogue.”
Yet, in 2006, controversy reigned after a study by Dr Lim Teck Ghee, then director of Asli’s Centre for Public Policy Studies, revealed that bumiputra ownership of corporate equity in the then Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange had exceeded the 30% target. The study, which used market value as opposed to the official par value valuation method and allocated the equity of GLCs according to racial share, noted it was time to do away with the policy which had been implemented since the 1970s.
Lim resigned after Asli president Mirzan Mahathir, who had been away during the report’s release, issued a statement later that the study was flawed in its methodology and assumptions, and its conclusions could not be “vigorously justified”.
Shouldn’t think tanks stand by their research?
Rastam believes so.
“A think tank is there to provide policy recommendations and advice. If they (government) don’t accept, move on. And yes, we should stand by our research,” says Rastam.
When discussing the Education Blueprint, the issue of independence crops up – should a think tank conduct a study independently or wait for the government to commission research in any identified problem areas?
“Ideally, research should be independent,” notes Rastam.
Asked if this is because of the topic (education), he says: “Yes. It’s not education per se but education says a lot about society and about where we’re heading. We need to be looking into all that.”
When dealing with research on education, it is difficult to get past the politics, he concedes.
“Education has been a problem here as it relates to the politics of Malaysia and the direction we need to go.”
There are several issues, he highlights: “For example, whether we have one type of school or several types. We are one of the few countries in the world that have this kind of set-up. That has given rise to all sorts of problems.
“It’s quite easy to link education to politics and try and get sympathy from it, either way.”
It is pointed out that sometimes, think tanks commissioned by the government produce recommendations but they are ignored and not published. On whether the right to publish lies only with the government, Rastam says they are bound by the contract.
Wan Saiful, who points out that government commissioned research findings are generally kept in-house, adds “bad news is rarely released”.
He notes the culture of having independent think tanks has weakened.
“If think tanks are dependent on the federal/state government for funding and research, they will become more dependent on them and they will lose credibility with the public.”
On whether research has to be data driven, Charon exclaims, “Yes! We have enough pontificators.”
But getting data from the Government is not easy, he laments.
“We’re either told ‘it’s secret’ or that we can have a subset of a subset…I would have thought that we (Khazanah Research Institute) would have slightly better leverage but that isn’t the case.”
He adds that deep research would better inform public debate and people could disagree on facts rather than for the sake of disagreeing.
Institute Rakyat executive director Yin Shao Loong, who describes his outfit as ‘very small’ and not having ‘much funding’, says they have difficulty doing deep research on social inequality.
“If we want to go beyond moral arguments, we need data, and it becomes very expensive.
“And we can’t get all the data or variables, just subsets, and even these can come to RM30,000.
“The think tank community should advocate for greater openness in access to government data.”
Crucially, a lot of research seems couched in language most men in the street cannot understand.
Are think tanks only doing research for intellectuals, it is raised.
Rastam denies it, “No, I don’t think so. We have researchers who write in newspaper columns.”
But how do they reach youths who are not going to read reams of paper to get to a point or who obtain much of their information in smaller bites online?
Rastam agrees that think tanks need to understand IT fully and improve their ability to use social media platforms.
“Young people are a huge pool of human resource. They have a different approach to issues and we need to listen to them.”
Youths are generally reluctant to attend dialogues, says Wan Saiful, who usually catches up with them at mamak stalls where they would be discussing serious issues.
Arief Subhan Arman Asyraf Baldev, 21, like the other young participants, wants think tanks to help “realise the potential of Malaysian youths and allow for a more inclusive participation.”
The University of Queensland third-year Politics and Philosophy student who is home on holiday, says youths often want to be involved, but feel disenfranchised and disconnected.
Asked if research is the be-all and end-all of think tanks, Rastam says that they have activities that generate thinking and ideas.
According to Yeoh and Charon, their think tanks also conduct advocacy campaigns to make the information from their studies relevant to policy makers and the public at large.
“We look at the pressing issues of the nation and so need to work out how to translate the findings into policy,” adds Charon.
Vision 2020 is round the corner and the Sustainable Development Goals have to be met by 2030, the same year Malaysia is expected to hit ‘ageing nation’ status.
Asli is pushing for upholding integrity and ethical leadership and the truth as these are our fundamental philosophies, says Yeoh.
“We need to work more on ethical leadership in government and business.”
Charon would like think tanks to “stay as close as possible to the truth” in telling the narrative.
Rastam, who says ISIS Malaysia is taking the lead to set up a network of all the think tanks here, adds it is crucial to study mindsets.
“Are we (the Government and the people) just interested in income levels? How many Alphards, BMWs or Mercedes Benzes come in? What about the mindset and outlook?” he asks.
“We want to be a high income economy but we don’t want to compete with outsiders. I agree with (former International Trade and Industry Minister) Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz – how can we become a first world country if we have a third world mentality?”
Indeed, how can we
see original post at http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2016/03/06/thoughts-on-keeping-malaysia-informed/