AS Ideas celebrates its 10th anniversary, I’ve been asked to highlight five achievements.
First, I am proud of the contributions of the research and advocacy that we have conducted towards policymaking in Malaysia. On a general sense, we can confidently say that we have shaped public debates and injected new ideas among stakeholders and the wider public. On a more specific level, we can point to certain manifesto promises, pieces of legislation, or new policies where we played a role. These include, for example, the repeal of the Fake News Act, the policy of separating the Attorney General’s roles as public prosecutor and legal advisor to the government, and the emerging framework on rare diseases within the Ministry of Health.
Second, I continue to be blown away by the impact of our two special education projects: namely the Ideas Autism Centre and Ideas Academy, which now operates independently. Established as proof of concept projects, the results from students and the satisfaction from parents proves to us that the most disadvantaged in society can receive a high quality of education through NGO cooperation and private philanthropy, significantly boosting their opportunities in life.
Third, I am proud of the recognition in various forms that has been given to Ideas, from being ranked one of the best new think tanks in the world, to being favourably quoted by both government and opposition politicians (before and after the 14th general election), being asked to observe elections not just in Malaysia but in the region as well, and being asked by the media to comment on every imaginable issue pertaining to policy or politics.
Fourth, recognition has also been bestowed upon our members of staff, interns, directors, and fellows, many of whom have been selected for prestigious international programmes and scholarships and gone on to senior positions in both the private and public sector.
Fifth is the wider contribution we have made towards strengthening civil society in Malaysia through cooperation. Every healthy democracy needs confident and open debate, in which contrarians need not fear speaking up.
We have been supported not only by activists and campaigners, but also by brave individuals within political parties and the civil service, even when that risked their career advancement. A combination of individual supporters, like-minded organisations, the corporate sector, and diplomatic missions too have enabled us to advocate what we believe to be spirit of Merdeka and values of our Constitution.
Since this year’s Guest of Honour is the Deputy Prime Minister, I shall depart from usual practice and quote the first Deputy Prime Minister instead of the first Prime Minister.
At a lunch in Singapore in July 1965, he commented on federalism, saying “in a federal system of government there must be a spirit of give and take”. He referenced the Tunku’s 1961 concept of Malaysia “to bring together the peoples of the various territories of Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and Malaya in political and economic cooperation… [and]all our people – Malays, Chinese, and others – to regard themselves as Malaysians”.
He affirmed that “our Constitution provides a place for every Malaysian and protects and guarantees his rights and privileges. There is no question of discrimination or dominance of one race against the other under our Constitution”. He went on to say, “It is our duty as responsible leaders to sustain and strengthen this harmony and goodwill so that our people will, in due course, feel themselves as one, as one people and not as members of different communities. This process must necessarily take time because we want to achieve it through [the]democratic process.”
These words of Tun Abdul Razak still resonate today. We still grapple with federalism, racism, our Constitution, and the democratic process. These are also among the many topics that the current government has pledged to tackle. I first encountered Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah’s speeches during the heydays of Reformasi, and 20 years later, I am glad that Ideas has played a part in contributing to the manifesto she is now mandated to deliver.
A month after that speech, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia. Four years later, tragic race riots occurred in Kuala Lumpur, and a year after that, Tun Razak replaced Tunku Abdul Rahman as Prime Minister. In recent decades, scholarship has investigated the relationship between the two men: their loyalty to each other, their ideological differences, and their policy divergences.
Whatever the future of the leadership of this country in the coming years, I hope that Ideas, with support from sponsors and supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds, will continue to provide a voice and a platform for the development of our beloved country according to the timeless principles of Malaysia’s foundations.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.