By Carolyn Hong (The Straits Times, 26 Nov 2009)

One is a member of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, another is a member of the ruling Umno party, and the third is in neither party. But the three young men have one thing in common – they believe in libertarian values.

Together, the three friends have set up the Malaysia Think Tank, an outfit that researches and promotes these ideas. They are a breath of fresh air in a Malaysia that is stubbornly divided along political, ethnic and religious lines.

People tend to band together according to race or religion; and if they transcend that, they cluster according to their political affiliation. But on ideas? That’s rare, indeed.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, 34, (the PAS member), Mr Wan Mohd Firdaus, 26, (the Umno member), and Tunku ‘Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, 27, (not a party member) don’t think it strange at all.

“We share the same ideas, and our politics don’t matter. The thing about Malaysia is that we may be divided by ethnic or religious lines, but we all believe in the same idea of democracy,” Mr Wan Saiful said.

The three founders, from left: Wan Firdaus, Wan Saiful, and Tunku 'Abidin. PHOTO: Malaysia Think Tank

The three met in London where they were working for British political consultancies and politicians. Malaysia Think Tank (MTT) was set up in 2006, and they now hope to expand it after securing funding from international organisations and private donations.

Mr Wan Saiful is full time with the organisation, while the other two work elsewhere as well. Tunku ‘Abidin is a Research Fellow with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

MTT is planning to do research on democratic institutions and education, among others, based on the concept of free markets, free individuals, rule of law and a limited government.

They also run a project — www.AkademiMerdeka.org — in partnership with Washington-based Atlas Global Initiative to promote libertarian ideas to the region.

You may disagree with their ideas – and lots of people do – but that’s democracy. A marketplace of ideas, rather than a tussle for power based on race and religion.

The 2008 general election saw a distinct, albeit hesitant, shift away from race politics that have defined Malaysia for so long. Many people discarded ethnic interests for common interests, but this has begun to falter.

Without new ideas or policies, race politics keep trying to make a return. “People are starting to see beyond race, but what should we be fighting for? We are saying that these – libertarian values – are a set of ideas to consider,” said Mr Wan Saiful.

This is the tiny glimmer of the new Malaysia that many young people have been clamouring for.

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