Ideas of freedom

OVER the last four years, I am proud to have been part of a young, dynamic team of people working hard to produce research-based ideas and policy proposals at a local, independent think-tank. My study leave to pursue a PhD in political science coincides with the celebration of the country's 60th anniversary of its independence, so for this column I shall share reflections of specific instances in which I felt IDEAS offered me the right platform and opportunities to contribute to the nation's future.

One of the projects that I am most proud of was a nine-month programme that brought selected young Malaysians from all over the country together under the banner of a national unity youth fellowship. Every other weekend, we would bring them from state to state: fishing villages in Kuala Terengganu, Iban land rights activists in Sarawak, Chitty village in Malacca, Thai community in Perlis, and one of the most memorable to me – the post-flood devastation in a small Kelantanese village.

These visits were to expose our youth to the realities on the ground, and discuss challenges and issues being faced locally. We met local politicians and community leaders who gave us the inside story of the political economy and governance of each of the states. Mostly, they shared their hopes and fears about their future, which were unsurprisingly similar in nature: better economic and educational opportunities for themselves and their families.

During these intensive workshops, speakers would educate the young fellows on the economic and political shape of the nation. Discussions would take place about our constitutional history, economic policy, interethnic and interreligious challenges – a safe space that I helped facilitate to achieve rational discourse (something rare and precious these days). Today, some of these fellows have gone on to join politics, start their own movements and one was even awarded the Queen's Young Leaders Award by Queen Elizabeth. I watch on with pride.

Second, our undying belief in the principles of liberty and justice (a quote from Tunku Abdul Rahman's declaration of independence that we often use). We organised numerous conferences over the years, but the flagship one that always reminded me of why this work was so gravely important was our Liberalism Conference. Held annually, it was the one conference that would attempt to dispel the unfounded views that put liberalism in negative light.

Unprecedented, this was the only platform that brought together speakers from disparate perspectives on one panel: from right-wing conservative groups like ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) and Perkasa (Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa) to the more liberal IRF (Islamic Renaissance Front) and Sisters in Islam (SIS). Sure, the speakers would consistently disagree since they had different worldviews altogether, but this was the rare opportunity for the issues to be discussed openly. Only through engagement can there be any resolution on how we can live together in a common space.

The Liberalism Conference would also bring together varied perspectives on the economy: should there be more or less government intervention in managing our economy? Again, there are vastly different opinions. We explored the negative impact that poorly managed government-linked companies have on the country's fiscal health; how opaque and non-transparent public procurement practices mean that even bumiputra companies do not benefit s long as they are not well-connected; how excessive government regulation makes it tough for companies, both small and large, to operate in the country.

How about the political future of the country? Bringing together political leaders from both sides of the divide was this conference's forte. What is the right model that works to secure the future of Malaysia? The Barisan Nasional consociational model that was meant to allow different ethnic groups a political party to air their grouses, or the Pakatan Harapan model where each party is at least in theory multiracial? More importantly, what public policies should be implemented to ensure the long-term wealth to allow all communities to prosper and flourish, living the lives they desire?

These are all questions that have been explored deeply throughout my years here, and it is this enabling of such intellectual debate that I believe has added value.

The Malaysia of today has the burden of dealing with multiple faultlines, and it is these we must carefully navigate. At a time when these faultlines – race, religion, geographical distance, urban-rural divide, language – seem to be rearing their ugly heads more often than we like, it is ever more important for there to be avenues for us to understand "the other".

Finally, the working together with other members of civil society was a valuable experience. Through a coalition of governance, integrity, accountability and transparency (GIAT), we launched several campaigns to promote good governance in the public sector. One of the most prominent ones was to establish an even more independent Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the separation of powers between the attorney-general and the public prosecutor, both roles of which are fused into one person today.

Separately, a "Good Governance Agenda" that political parties can sign up to included the need for open data practices, transparent budgets, the review of the Official Secrets Act, Whistleblower Protection Act and the tabling of legislation to allow for transparent political financing, and freedom of information. It is these governance frameworks that can help existing systems to mitigate the effects of any possible human failure.

It is always a challenge to measure the public policy impact that a think-tank makes, especially one that is independent of government. However, four years on, there were certainly key occasions during which some role was played in contributing to Malaysia, now and beyond: educating young Malaysians; expanding the space for discussions on liberty, justice, governance and economic development; painting a vision of the future we want.

While we celebrate 60 years of independence, it is all too easy to romanticise the past and imagine what it was like in those early years, brimming with hope. We have accomplished a lot, let us not deny this.

But let us keep moving to greater heights. And to do this, we will need more such platforms that I believe IDEAS has been able to provide Malaysians, by bringing together people from all walks of life to face the realities of present-day crises, and ultimately seek practical public policy solutions that will best provide us the freedom we seek. Selamat Hari Merdeka ke-60.

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