The author is the Malaysia Bureau Chief of the Straits Times.
One is a member of Umno, the other belongs to the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and the third is a prince. Collectively, the three young men have formed an independent think-tank called IDEAS, or the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
Its cross-partisan leadership is one of the more intriguing aspects of IDEAS; another is that it promotes a libertarian free-market ideology that is almost entirely unfamiliar to Malaysians.
They believe in minimal government intervention in the economy and society. They are for private education and against the minimum wage. They are also against the country’s long-running National Economic Policy, since social engineering distorts markets.
For a young think-tank, IDEAS has drawn a lot of attention since it was set up in February last year – in fact, its launch was presided over by Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Its chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan, 35, – the PAS member – said their respective political affiliations do not bother them. ‘Our strength comes from being cross-partisan, we stick to consistent positions in our policies, which is to promote market-based solutions to public policy issues. We don’t try to reconcile our political differences,’ he said.
He said they started informally five years ago, when all three were working and studying in London. They have now returned home to Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Wan Firdaus Wan Mohd Fuaad, 27, the Umno member, is now working in the government, while Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, 27, the Negeri Sembilan Yang di-Pertuan Besar’s son, is a newspaper columnist and former Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy research fellow.
In Malaysia, the research scene is still dominated by large outfits like the government’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies and the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. Political parties like Gerakan and the Malaysian Chinese Association, as well as some state governments, also fund research outfits.
IDEAS is one of the few broad-based independent groups that have evolved out of the cacophony of diverse views unleashed since the sacking of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.
Mr Ibrahim Suffian, who runs the Merdeka Centre, which was set up in 2001 as the country’s first public opinion pollster, said: ‘I think the events of 1998, along with the advent of the Internet, allowed members of the public to vent their views for the first time.’
Mr Wan Saiful said public discourse got livelier still during Tun Abdullah Badawi’s administration from 2003 to 2009, helped along by the Internet.
Some online groups became mass movements like Loyar Buruk, or ‘bad lawyer’. The tongue-in-cheek name belies its aim: promoting the rule of law. Others evolved into think-tanks like IDEAS that publish opinions and policy papers.
Funding has also become easier. Observers say that as Malaysia is now middle-income, donations that would have been channelled into poverty or community projects are now often directed to promoting democracy and good governance.
IDEAS gets funding from government agencies, as well as international bodies, including the United States-based Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace and Prosperity, and Germany-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty.
But, Mr Wan Saiful noted ironically, Malay rights group Perkasa has been most effective in conveying its message.
IDEAS is now exploring opening a private primary school for those who do not qualify for state schools, such as children of refugees. Mr Wan Saiful said it is not impossible for the poor to pay fees for good education, as is the case in parts of India. He said he is aware, however, that many Malaysians will baulk at paying school fees. ‘It’s normal to be sceptical. We prefer to do research and publish to show that it can work,’ he said.
The article was first published by the Straits Times on 21 September 2011. Photo courtesy of the Institute of Democracy & Economic Affairs (IDEAS).