Oh no, not another think-tank

JOHOR now wants to set up a new think-tank. The Johor Institute for Strategy, Economic Advancement and Democracy (Jisead) was announced by Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin at the end of the two-day Johor Umno Convention recently.

Johor's last think-tank – the Institute Sultan Iskandar (ISI) – under Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) died a natural death, but not after some public disquiet over its role and functions.

ISI became a talking point in the late 1990s when its influence and powers transcended even that of state departments, effectively usurping the powers of legitimate public bodies.

What started off as a noble bid to counsel the state administration on urban redevelopment and economic matters became an utter embarrassment to the state administration.

It was eventually disbanded. But now comes Jisead.

While its terms of reference are still unclear, one wonders what effective purpose and contribution this research body can make.

Strategy and economic advancement, of course, are fluid in their very nature and need monitoring and evaluation by professionals to keep the state government on track with global trends. But surely, democracy is out of sync with critical thinking.

After all, democracy is not under threat in Johor. It is alive and well as evidenced by all the din coming from the state legislative assembly with 18 opposition members.

This need for an exclusive Johor think-tank is negated by the fact that the mentri besar has created a special layer of "advisers" within his office, who have taken on the role of being his personal think-tank.

These 15-odd special officers, who are all young, smart and mostly foreign-educated, seem to control all his engagements and movements. Selected by Khaled Nordin himself, they are his "eyes and ears" and do all the footwork.

They have since become "little Napoleons", often trying to shield the boss from direct contact with the rakyat. This makes a complete mockery of the Barisan Nasional election slogan "sentiasa berdampingan dengan rakyat" (always close to the people).

The state's economic agenda is also largely decided by these upstarts, as evidenced by the 2015 State Budget that was drafted with hardly any input or feedback from public-interest groups, chambers of commerce or non-governmental organisations.

There is yet another de-facto think-tank in Johor – the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), which is the custodian of the Iskandar Malaysia economic growth corridor.

IRDA is staffed with some of the best brains in almost all spheres of public administration – the economy, trade, investments, small and medium-scale businesses, social services, logistics, education and public housing.

They effectively function as a think-tank, formulating policies and strategies to spur Iskandar Malaysia to greater heights. With so much talent available in IRDA, do you need another think-tank?

What about the other specialist state and federal departments and agencies, which are abundantly equipped with manpower and resources to undertake research and surveys in almost any aspect of the economy or public administration.

A case in point is the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) which basically has the pulse on the ground on the economic growth and the Malaysia Investment Development Authority (MIDA) which spearheads foreign direct investment into the country.

In addition, there are also a myriad of other pro-establishment think-tanks which can be readily enlisted by Johor for key economic data, research on public strategy and policy or surveys on public expectations and aspirations.

And then, there are also the universities, UTM in Skudai in particular, where professors in various areas of specialisation are ready to be of service.

Indeed, the most influential think-tanks are policymakers and scholars who have previously served in government positions. And there are plenty of them, whose expertise, talent and years of wisdom have largely gone untapped.

Of course, there is also private external professional help that the government has sought in many previous occasions, where renowned think-tanks were roped in to advise the state administration.

With so much expertise available, it begs the question – does Johor need another think-tank?

Roy, a long-time resident of JB, is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com