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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

New Think Tanks for New Times

By Ooi Kee Beng

This interview with YB Liew Chin Tong, outgoing Executive Director of Penang Institute and Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, discusses his understanding of the tasks think tanks need to adopt in the 21st century. Malaysian nation building has not been an easy process, and one of the negative developments it involved was not only a huge outflow of brains but also the outsourcing of thinking by the government. The latter has left governance in Malaysia in a sad state, run according to knee-jerk reactions and for populist appeal.

Q: Tell us how you became involved in think-tank activities and in Penang especially?

Well, after the Democratic Action Party won power in the state in early 2008, I had a discussion with the Chief Minister, Mr Lim Guan Eng, about the need for a new think tank in the state to supply the new state government with good advice based on good research. This would make full use of the many experts on urban and municipal government who can be found in Penang.

Decision-making is essentially based on advice, which means that it is the duty of all of us to make sure that good advice is available, that sound information is available to the government and to society at large. This is something that I have always been convinced of; that the government needs a think tank; and that the party needs a think tank.

What do you have otherwise? If the input is garbage, you cannot expect the output to be otherwise. The quality and depth and breadth of advice is good, then decisions can be based on evidence. You cannot work based only on civil service advice.

Once you have alternative advice alongside civil service advice, then you have policy dialogue. In Malaysia, we tend to have the civil service on one hand, and on the other, we have private interests. Of course, we cannot blame the latter for voicing their preferences and lobbying for their own benefit.

What we need is something in the middle – a third force; and that is what think tanks should aim to be. Compared to civil society groups, think tanks have to function more broadly and be more result-oriented.

In late 2006, I began heading a think tank in Kuala Lumpur called Research for Social Advancement (REFSA). This is now being led by Dr Teh Chi-Chang.

Penang already had the Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI). But I thought it best that we started a totally new think tank. I wanted to start from scratch. But since we have strong ties with Dr Toh Kin Woon, a compromise was arrived at, and the new state government decided to continue financing the SERI. I became a board member in October 2008.

Having my own vision and going it alone was very difficult. There was not much I could accomplish in the beginning. During the Christmas holidays in 2008, I had a long chat with the chairman of the executive committee, Datuk Seri Chet Singh, and we decided to bring in Deputy Chief Minister Mr. P. Ramasamy onto the board.

I was pushing for a change in SERI leadership. I was suggesting for example that you, Kee Beng, could move back to Penang to take over. That didn’t happen. These discussions went on from April until late October 2009, when it was decided that I would be executive director, without pay.

Q: What is it you want so bad to achieve at the institute?

My wish has been to turn the institute into a place that could generate alternative advice for the state and the people, and help the state project itself beyond the nation-state. The future likes in cities. We see the world changing in front of our eyes, and yet we do not react accordingly.

I remember talking in May 2009 to the late Tun Lim Chong Eu, the Chief Minister of Penang from 1969 to 1990, at the 90th birthday dinner we hosted for him. He said that we were in a period that was highly reminiscent of the post-WWII period, when the global financial system was being reconstructed.

We are going through massive changes right now, no doubt about that. The whole of Asia has been relying on exports to the USA for its economic well-being. Those days are over, at least for a long time to come. Unemployment there is just too high, and they cannot really consume the amount we need them to consume.

The type of globalization we have been seeing is at an end. Eventually, China, India and Indonesia are going to be the drivers in many ways. Now, how can Penang find its niche in this future growth area? We are right in the middle of this, geographically and even culturally. That is what the future looks like.

So, you see how important I feel think tanks like Penang Institute are.

Q: Some would say that you are being too idealistic.

You see, the framework for decision making is extremely important. One must not make important decisions based only on verbal advice. That will lead to weak policies, and to the need to defend these weak policies. This can be tragic for society at large. You must formalize your framework, create good channels, and set the parameters. Thinking takes time, and thinking needs reliable information.

With the name change from SERI to Penang Institute, we adopted several clusters for research. We have Penang Studies; we have Cities, Environment and Urbanisation; we have Economics and Entrepreneurship; we have Global Democracy, Social Justice, Gender and Equity.

These are the areas we are hoping to work on, and we hope to build networks throughout the region in order to propel Penang into a new level.

Where Penang Studies is concerned, one can learn a lot from studying the post-Independence period in Penang. We need to study the policy ideas and the policy-making processes of that time. In the end, Penang Institute has to be a public policy body. We are creating the Lim Chong Eu public archives; and we are studying the George Town City Council period. This will help us think through our future, and about city environment and governance. Penang can be a role model for the region. In economics, we look at Penang within the regional framework to look for ways to enhance entrepreneurship and economic development. Lastly, we wish to understand more deeply issues of social injustice and inequality as manifested today.

Q: You have now been Executive Director for two years at the institute. What do you see when you look back today?

In 2009, we decided to revamp the institute’s magazine, Penang Economic Monthly, into the success it is today. I had been involved quite a lot in publications, and thought that the publishing licence the institute had was not being properly utilized, and the money was not being used effectively.

All that was needed was vision and will to turn it into what it is today. This process itself reflects clearly, for me, the amazing cultural depth that Penang has, the potential it commands, the goodwill it enjoys. All this is on display in the magazine. Nowhere else, even in Kuala Lumpur, can such a magazine come into being. If any legacy of my time here is left in the years to come, I hope it will be the magazine.

To be honest with you, looking back, I think we actually should have started a totally new organization. The whole process took too long, a lot of energy was wasted, and a lot of acrimony was created along the way. It was very uncharacteristic of a think tank for me to have had to fight so hard to have new ideas accepted.

A think tank is a place where you have to be bold enough to experiment with ideas, and often with what seems to be small ideas. It is a place for experiments to create ways of thinking that can be replicated at a higher level.

It was only when the state finally agreed to pump a substantial amount into Penang Institute – this was in mid-2011 – that we could have the structure for research that we now have.

I told the board from the very beginning that I was not staying for long. The position was transitional for me. I wanted the name change from the start, in order to reflect Penang confidence in itself, to project Penang as a place to be reckoned with in the future, in the new Asia.

We have held two major conferences and several key seminars; we did development blueprints for the state, the institute has published its first book (Pilot Studies for a New Penang, 2010) and the second is on the way (Catching the Wind: Penang in a Rising Asia, 2012). We have vibrancy now, and with the new recruits, and with Prof Woo Wing Thye taking over in March 2012, I think the future looks good.

I must humbly add that given the long time I have been at SERI and Penang Institute, not much as been achieved, compared to what was actually achievable. The magazine of course is a resounding success, and the rest began moving only after Mr Steven Sim became our manager. The challenge now is for the institute to nurture middle-level experts in all the fields we are going into. That’s where our success or failure will occur.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the point of having power is to empower others. It’s not that I have had much power, but I did punch above my weight, and that was thanks to people around me who worked with me. I have been fortunate in meeting the right people.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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