Towards a New Malaysia
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 15 Mar 2013
THE term “think tank” may evoke images of stuffy bespectacled researchers sitting behind desks towering with stacks of paper.
And whilst it is true that the centrepiece of a think tank rests on its intellectual capabilities of research and policy, what is equally important is that it proposes practical solutions.
The limitation of ivory-tower research is precisely that it does not apply to the lives of people on a daily basis.
Herein lies the advantage of the new think tank that was launched last week.
Institut Rakyat, a new think tank that is affiliated with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Keadilan), seeks to provide independent policy advice on a range of socioeconomic issues primarily, amongst others.
Due to this affiliation, many people have questioned just how independent such an institute can be.
This is a model that is not entirely new.
In fact, many political parties around the world have foundations, organisations, and think tanks that are affiliated with them, but are also able to operate independently.
Germany’s political parties, for example, practise this: The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is a foundation associated with their Social Democratic Party and aims to promote democracy, political education, and promote students of outstanding intellectual abilities and personality.
Many other examples follow in like manner, such as the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for the Liberal Party and so on.
Another common question raised is, in the event of a conflict of position, which one prevails?
The answer to this is rather simple.
A think tank’s role is to propose, debate, ensure deep and thorough dialogue takes place on a certain policy or subject. The think tank engages with people from a broad spectrum of society, including academia, the media, civil society, the private sector, religious groups, labour groups, government and so on, in order to collate thoughts, perspectives, ideas and produce evidence-based solutions.
In this particular circumstance, Institut Rakyat would exercise editorial independence in its research and writings.
When proposed and presented to the party it is linked with, the ultimate decision on what exactly to implement is out of the institute’s hands.
Although this may seem confusing to some, this is in fact the best way to encourage policy debate and discussion – what better way than to disagree and iron out the issues amongst our researchers and experts.
And there is so much to smoothen over, given the numerous issues Malaysia faces today – economic, social, environmental, cultural and otherwise.
As such, Institut Rakyat aims to conduct research and formulate policies that are directed towards social justice and a sustainable future at national and state levels.
Its focus areas under the Policy Hub are Economy and Finance; Law, Governance and Social Justice; Human Development and Sustainability; Foreign Policy and Security; and Media, Arts and Culture.
But in order to ensure these do not remain as policy papers on shelves, libraries and desks, it is imperative that they are discussed widely through workshops, forums, conferences and publications – which is part of the plan.
In fact, two separate public forums are being planned for the month of March, which will be announced shortly.
Finally, through its Youth Hub, it will provide a platform for nurturing and training young leaders, policy-makers and thinkers.
The objectives here are to provide political education and leadership training for youth, provide avenues for students and youth to engage with activism and party politics, and create platforms and networks for youth to generate ideas and engage with the public through similar dialogues.
The last election produced many young parliamentarians and state assemblypersons who would have much to offer their younger counterparts in their experiences and accumulated knowledge.
Some may also have wondered about the timing of the launch, taking place when preparations are already underway heading toward the 13th General Election.
What role precisely would a think tank have in the political process? True, it would have no direct responsibilities in the campaigning itself.
However, as an institute that is more than interested in the policies being proposed by either political coalition, there is certainly a gap to be filled.
Pakatan Rakyat, the national opposition coalition, of which Keadilan is a part, unveiled its election manifesto earlier this week, titled “Manifesto Rakyat: Pakatan Harapan Rakyat”.
This 35-page document is loaded with policy proposals ranging from the raising of the national minimum wage to RM1,100, reducing water and electricity rates, and abolishing tolls, to returning 141,000 hectares of land to Orang Asli communities and so on.
These are policies which need unpacking, understanding, and evaluation as to their feasibility.
This is where Institut Rakyat comes in, allowing this space for open and frank discussion, so that ultimately the rakyat is able to digest the proposals or clarify questions they may have upon reading the document.
It is, after all, perfectly logical and necessary for the public to know the sort of future government they would get should there be a leadership change.
The institute will tap on the expertise of a wide range of people in the Board of Directors and Advisory Panel, with renowned individuals like Jomo K Sundram, Dr Syed Husin Ali, Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon – as well as reaching out to individual experts in their respective areas of, for example, constitutional law, media reforms, local elections, and others, in drafting policy proposals.
The establishment of Institut Rakyat is a reminder that policy debate is here to stay, and hopefully encourages public discussion even further than what already exists (with the help of social media, no less).
We look forward to what lies ahead, towards a new Malaysia.
Tricia Yeoh is a research director of Institut Rakyat. Please visit www.institutrakyat.org for more details.