Building bridges across communities and bottom up accountability – Tricia Yeoh | OTT Conference 2024 keynote address

4 June 2024
SERIES OTT Conference – Think tanks and their communities

Tricia Yeoh, Chief Executive Officer of IDEAS in Malaysia delivered this keynote address at the OTT Conference 2024, at Fundació Bofill, Barcelona, Spain. 


Good afternoon everyone, and thanks to OTT for having invited me to speak at this year’s conference on Think Tanks and Communities.

Today I’d like to share the story of IDEAS, or the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs with you. I will share how IDEAS has been able to navigate an extremely complex society in Malaysia and still emerge as an important, influential force for policy change. And I will end by reflecting on our experience with some thoughts about what this means about think tanks and their communities more broadly.

Malaysian context

To do that, I need to start with the context of the country we operate in: Malaysia. Malaysia can be classified as an electoral authoritarian, or hybrid regime. Up to 2018 we were ruled by the single-party dominant regime of UMNO, and because of the many years of one party government, the institutions of party and government have been fused into one, where it is assumed that institutions function at the behest of the ruling party. UMNO long practised patronage politics, resulting in community dependence on politicians for all kinds of public services, welfare and basic assistance.

Malaysia is also a federation of 13 states, but a highly centralised one where the central government controls most policy and fiscal matters. As a result, states and society at the subnational level have never given much thought to participating in decision-making.

Third, we still have a system of monarchy. Nine rulers of nine states rotate to ascend as King every 5 years. While the King is largely ceremonial in nature, the Rulers have played an increasingly significant role in influencing matters related to race, religion and nationhood.

Malaysia is multiracial and multireligious, comprising a majority ethnicity of Malays – around 67%, with a large minority of Chinese 20%, 7% Indians, and other indigenous minorities.

There has always been tension especially between the Malay and non-Malay communities, dating back to the 1930s when citizenship was being negotiated. Our 1957 Constitution eventually contained a clause that provides for the special position of what is termed as ‘Bumiputera’, translated as the sons of the soil, referring to the Malay and indigenous. There is a commonly accepted view, which in fact was a political construct made by a political communicator, that there was a ‘social contract’ agreed upon. This social contract refers to the notion of a trade-off between the majority and minority ethnic populations of Malaysia: citizenship for Chinese and Indian migrant communities in exchange for the special position preserved for the majority Bumiputera population.

In 1971, a New Economic Policy was launched to ensure the Bumiputera community would enjoy affirmative action privileges across the spectrum from housing to education and corporate equity. This has led to unhappiness from among ethnic minorities, some of whom have criticised this as a form of institutionalised racism built into the system. In recent years, ethnic and religious polarisation has deepened, not least due to the effects of social media and other factors that are too lengthy to explore today. There are separate education and employment tracks: Chinese go to Chinese language schools, Malays to Malay language schools, and the elite go to private schools. We read separate newspapers.

IDEAS’ formation and positioning strategy

So, this was the backdrop within which a think tank like IDEAS was formed in 2010, 14 years ago. At the heart of it, the founders were classical liberals who subscribed to the principles of liberal democracy, i.e. competitive markets, the rule of law, individual liberty and a limited government. The think tank would speak of the freedom of speech and expression, of the media, equality before the law, most things that ran counter to the mainstream political narrative of the day.

But how were we going to champion these ideals in a society that still espoused conservative values, believed in a strongman state and did not actually practise equality before the law? Where were we going to situate ourselves in the context of Malaysia’s multiple and highly layered society?

First, IDEAS took the words out of our founding father’s mouth. Our vision was plucked from the country’s first Prime Minister’s Independence speech, to uphold the values of liberty and justice. We launched on the birthday of Tunku Abdul Rahman, and in a way, disrupted the narrative by claiming that yes, indeed, we are very much Malaysian and nobody had better say otherwise.

Second, it was also important that the composition of our think tank leadership and governance was representative of the country’s communities. In our previous IDEAS Council, political parties from both ruling and opposition parties were represented. The Board comprised the three founding members, one of whom is currently a prince, the son of a Ruler. Another was from the Islamic party. And yet another from UMNO, the ruling party. This enabled us to demonstrate representation from all stripes, justifying our claim to be independent and not aligned with any political party. The past CEOs have been Malay-Muslim – and I am the first CEO who is from a minority group, making it a bit more challenging whenever I question the status quo. But it was important for us to rise above the divisions between communities and position ourselves clearly as a think tank that identified as Malaysian.

Third, we have had to navigate through and negotiate extremely carefully the very complex and treacherous territory of Malaysia’s many fault-lines. Despite our utmost belief in equality before the law, we know the reality that it is impossible to even utter the words “abolish special rights” of the majority population. So instead of calling for abolishing of ethnic privileges entirely, which would render all of our policy research and advocacy meaningless, we have used the language of technocrats to essentially push for the same outcomes: competition and a level-playing field. Importantly, we have been careful in navigating the space, to rock the boat but not rock the boat too much. It takes experience to know when and when not to push.

Instead of harping on the flaws of affirmative action policy per se, we pursued research on Government-Linked Companies, which were set up primarily to elevate the economic interests of the Bumiputera. And we have shown that GLCs are in fact compromised and serving political as opposed to public interests. We did research on public procurement, again within which there are quotas and margins of reservations preserved for the Bumiputera community, to demonstrate that public procurement is the source of much corruption.

We have placed greater emphasis on the policy work around institutional reform: good governance, anti-corruption, transparency, accountability – in order to sell the idea of liberal democracy. Going that route is the far less threatening one. Professionalising politics is how we put it, to push our policymakers and politicians to think along the lines of policy as opposed to identity politics of race and religion.

Thus far I’ve shared about the positioning strategies IDEAS has adopted in situating ourselves within the public’s mind. In doing so, we have been able to ride out the storm of what has taken place over the last few years in Malaysia.

Over the last 4 years – coinciding with the COVID pandemic – the country has experienced the most political instability with five Prime Ministers in five years. There is a widening chasm between the Malays and Chinese, fuelled by suspicion and highly politicised narratives laced with racist remarks, which are both perpetuated and supported by extremist wings of political parties that represent these ethnic communities. Amidst this complex, fluid situation and rapidly shifting political allegiances, IDEAS has been able to maintain our independence and relationships with the different governments, primarily due to the positioning strategies I have mentioned. We have been careful as well knowing when to speak and when not to. When need be, we criticise the policy and not the personality; the substance of the policy and its effects, preferring not to comment on identity politics.

Networks, Partnerships, Coalitions

Liliana Alvarado spoke about how think tanks are shifting away from their traditional roles into becoming more engaged in communities. At its core, I will admit that IDEAS is a think tank that still primarily engages with the elite circles, targeting our policy advocacy at members of Parliament, policymakers and the business circle. It is true that a large part of our activities have been concentrated within the urban centres and in the English language. We are certainly not a community organiser or grassroots organisation at the outset.

But building networks, partnerships and coalitions have been fundamental to our recent years’ impact. As a think tank, we have collaborated and built partnerships with other civil society organisations because they are the ones that have a deeper connection with the grassroots. One very good example is a coalition of anti-corruption groups that we partner with that represents a large Malay majority – many of which are Islamic NGOs whose focus is primarily on religious matters, whom we would never have been able to reach otherwise. Another is a coalition that IDEAS set up to work on political financing, working with other more vocal anti-corruption NGOs to amplify the voice and representation.

When we took up a project to revisit the government’s decision not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, considered controversial in Malaysia because of the perception that the Constitutional provision to protect Bumiputera’s special position would be abolished, we reached out to these highly conservative Islamic NGOs. In some cases, I could not even be present in the meetings because of who I am as an ethnic minority Chinese. But we were the only organisation in the country able to speak to all sides of the divide. A lot of time was spent on trust-building to assure them we were not necessarily slamming their positions at the outset.

Think tanks have convening power that other organisations don’t. IDEAS’ convening power has allowed us to bring government, politicians of different sides together that otherwise would never meet. We succeeded to bring Members of Parliament from different parties to promote political financing reform, which none of their parties would support.

Direct Community Work

Separately, we have worked more directly with the community in a few ways. We set up a network of subnational-level activists and NGOs to train them on how to read their state budgets. We conducted public education workshops with community leaders of all states on the importance of political financing reform. We set up a Seed Community for Indigenous education, going into villages to talk to teachers and students about their challenges, hopes and dreams.

We started these ground-level workshops and engagements precisely because we wanted to increase the demand for accountability from the bottom-up. Politicians in a first-past-the-post electoral system need to see and believe there is pressure from their own voters before they decide to act on a certain policy. Second, we want to show that impact can happen away from the halls of Parliament, that a groundswell of support and learning should happen from the bottom up. It’s a great coincidence that funders are also very interested in diffusion of democracy away from the urban centres.

But in all of this, there have been challenges as well. One is the challenge of adapting ourselves to working outside the urban centres. The skill sets of research staff are very different from what is required to do network-building and maintenance. Two is the issue of representation and whether an elite think tank is able to understand the problems and real-life issues faced at the more rural level.

Third, the challenge of divergence of positions within the same coalition. We have had instances of institutional reform coalition partners being economically left-wing and opposing free trade deals that we were otherwise championing in our other work.

We overcame these by ensuring that we diversified the network as much as possible, bringing in groups that were stronger in community engagement than we were. We also listened with an open mind and a researcher spirit, that we didn’t necessarily have all the answers and were willing to alter our positions to suit the reality of the situation. For example, even listening to local politicians made us change our mind about how high the political financing threshold for transparency should be. Finally, we agreed to disagree with the positions taken on other areas, and work constructively with the coalition members on an issue-by-issue basis. In a way, we could build trust with them and they slowly were able to warm to our position on other areas.

In the middle of the pandemic, we also reached out to all think tanks across the spectrum – in Malaysia, we are one of the few independent think tanks and most others are affiliated to either the government, a political party or a political individual. IDEAS led a coalition of think tanks to endorse a public statement calling for the government to change the way it managed the pandemic, including calling for more data-driven decision-making which was at the time not happening.

It was because of this relationship-building process that allowed us to host OTT for a local OTT talk, bringing none other than Enrique Mendizabal over to Kuala Lumpur for a gathering of think tanks. In this meeting, we discussed the changing role of think tanks and common challenges faced. These opportunities were grabbed at the right time, to show collective voice on an issue that affected all communities – and in Malaysia’s context, to have conversations across the divide, to be the bridge that connects political parties together, at a time when there is great polarisation.

Community, Impact and what this means for think tanks

As the world becomes ever more polarised, which the Israel-Palestine war has really intensified, I believe it is ever more important for think tanks to be the bridge across divided communities.

A global Ipsos study, carried out in 27 countries in 2018 found that three in four people on average across 27 countries think society in their country is divided. Countries that are most concerned about division are Serbia, where most people (93%) say their society is divided, Argentina (92%), Peru and Chile (both 90%). Those in Saudi Arabia are least likely to say their country is divided (34%) followed by China (48%) and Japan (52%).

When asked how divisions have changed since ten years ago, six in ten (59%) feel their country is now more divided (compared with 16% who say it is less divided). European countries are the most likely to think divisions have grown; three-quarters (77%) of people in Spain say their country is more divided now than a decade ago followed by Sweden, Germany, Britain and Italy (all 73%).

Think tanks are needed more than ever.

We are needed to work within and with communities.

Working with communities will require different sets of skills, expertise and stamina than think tanks had been traditionally expected to have. Making use of our strong networks upwards with the elite and downwards with community organisers is powerful.

Think tanks+

But sustaining networks and partnerships is incredibly exhausting and requires core and consistent funding. Time is needed to build trust with partners across ethnicities and political persuasions. Sometimes there are disruptions when members of the network leave for other jobs, so the work has to start all over again. So ensuring sustainability and continuity are key.

This convening power means that we are not necessarily the activists on the ground. Since community-based activists must often focus scarce resources on their frontline work, they are unable to organise the type of research-based evaluation and policy messaging that is the core specialisation of a think tank. So it is good for think tanks to partner with the community to consolidate the messaging to get a certain policy proposal out. Think tanks occupy an important middle ground as we are not identified with the street-based activism (which has its rightful place and its proponents), so we can open doors and bring the principles and evidence that support the objectives into the policymaking space.

And community engagement helps to enrich our data collection methods to inform our research as well. In our indigenous work, we realise it is not necessarily that we have policy prescriptions for them but that setting up a platform and the network of changemakers is what helps to inform our work and also deliver impact.

What all of this means for think tanks is that we are increasingly in great demand to be many things to many people. Maintaining a high quality of research, whilst also working with the community to establish networks and build partnerships is an increasing expectation. Resilience is required for the long haul, but I believe think tanks must show that we are contributing to the community – because we are too part of the community. The think tank ecosystem needs to adapt accordingly; funders and fellow think tanks must be able to provide the necessary support, encouragement and facilitation to ensure these networks survive and thrive.

To survive as a species, we have to overcome the illusion that we are separate and realise that we are interdependent, mutually dependent beings. Communities have thrived precisely because of our ability to work together, and there is an intrinsic desire to connect with each other. To quote Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer, “We are all part of one another and all involved in one another.”

Thank you.