Saturday, May 15

Stewarding a renewal of ideas


I SUSPECT it is a rare thing in any organisation for every member of staff, from the CEO to the company driver, to discuss and collectively shape its broad strategy.

Recently the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) had such a session, and I received an honorary invitation as chairman of the Board. Normally, it is in regular board meetings that the senior management team acts as the conduit and moderator between the views of board and staff.

The morning component, in a hotel that once hosted the inaugural meeting of Datuk Onn Jaafar’s Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), consisted of managers leading colleagues to examine basic questions about the existence of the institute, established to champion the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman (whose Umno and Alliance electorally crushed the IMP).

Indeed, the session reminded me very much of the earliest days of establishing the Malaysia Think Tank in 2006 which subsequently morphed into Ideas in 2010 – when I and the two other founders, Wan Saiful and Wan Mohd Firdaus, sat around a table and drew spider diagrams contemplating objectives and beliefs.

Although Firdaus and I remain on the board, all three of us have pursued other career objectives (and some might say, evolved or deteriorated in beliefs and priorities), but more relevantly for Ideas, the country and the world have changed. It is of vital importance that the outlook of any organisation – but particularly one that intends to effect positive change in society through research, advocacy and the policymaking process – takes into account the perspectives and emotional pulses of its younger members. This process is augmented by having ethnic diversity and different life and educational experiences among the team too.

And the pace of change has increased exponentially over time. Our early years drew on the opening up of democratic space in the era of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, followed by increasing acceptance of the role of civil society in the first part of his successor’s premiership. Although divisive rhetoric invoking race, religion, and reinterpretations of the nation’s fundamental documents were present throughout, the subsequent magnitude of financial scandals and erosion of national institutions magnified the activity of civil society as well, now more identifiably categorised either as think tanks that focused on research, or as NGOs that pursued activism.

As one of the early civil society organisations, Ideas managed to straddle both categories in its mission to contribute to the national story. Together with a growing civil society community – some like-minded and some not – politicians and political parties have had to take heed of the desire for more checks and balances, of renewed inspiration from the Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara, and of evidence-based best practices from around the world.

Much of this was imprinted into the manifestoes of the last general election, and even now, as the country contemplates the direction of the current government, I hear encouraging whispers that the reform agenda will survive far more than it might seem. I would love to believe the good intentions of appointees and beneficiaries of the new government, but it will take a lot to undo the perception that cronyism and the accrual of political power (primarily for the amassment of personal wealth) is the order of the day.

It is in this context that Ideas also sees a change of chief executive officer. Ali Salman, who stepped up unexpectedly in March 2018 following the departure of Wan Saiful, has certainly defied the criticisms that, as a non-Malaysian (he is from Pakistan) he would not be able to grasp the nuances of the Malaysian policymaking scene. Instead, he has done so admirably and with humility, nurturing the best talent from among the team in the process. In my conversations with him, I have noticed how his faith – he is a passionate and compassionate Muslim – has augmented his belief that expanding choice and opportunity for all people is the best means of endowing individual empowerment and fulfilment, and thus a peaceful and prosperous society. I wish him all the best in his future endeavours.

In his place, we welcome back Tricia Yeoh, who previously served as our chief operating officer until she left to pursue her PhD exploring state-federal relations.  She is also well-known for directing ‘The Rights of the Dead’, an award-winning documentary exploring the death of journalist and political aide Teoh Beng Hock, who was her colleague when she served as a research officer in the Selangor state government.

I call upon colleagues in civil society to welcome Tricia back to the fold, and I urge my friends across all political parties to engage fruitfully with her and our team.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.