Democratising research for progressive change: The Centre’s experience in Malaysia

30 November 2022
SERIES Knowledge translation in the Global South: reflections on the future 10 items

The terms that govern Malaysia’s public discourse have shifted tremendously in the last couple of decades. Thanks in part to the expansion of the third sector, NGOs, voluntary associations, and community-led groups have been challenging top-down and rigid institutional structures to stamp a more assertive civil society voice in the country’s political process. It was a mammoth struggle, but one that also contributed to the historic and democratic change of government that took place in May 2018.

Since then, the discursive space has expanded even further. Think tanks, many of which were already part of the journey in the run-up to the May 2018 election, have enjoyed greater public presence and visibility. Some were also born in the election’s aftermath, including The Centre.

Speaking pragmatically to all

Like other think tanks, The Centre’s main aim is to influence the policymaking process through evidence-informed ideas. But against the backdrop of the more participatory public debates that were taking shape in Malaysia, we saw the need for policy research to be engaging with them more immanently – we put policy ideas to the test with the very actors involved in those debates in order to bridge the gap between ground-level experience and high-level policy objectives.

To do this, we have adopted an editorial process driven by the consciousness that our research must be accessible to as many people as possible. We try to make sure our articles and reports are written in language that is inclusive, non-ideological, and pragmatic –  a challenging task when you cover heavy and also emotive topics such as the death penalty, hate speech, student debt, drug policy, and housing.

Priming for curiosity through visual content

Our editorial process is also aided by the involvement of graphic and visual input from start to finish. Visuals play a major part in our publications – they enhance the appeal of our articles, and we believe they strengthen the stories we want to tell our audience. They also help make the data we want to share digestible.

But the ‘audience’ is not a monolithic entity. Some will read our articles even if the articles are on a black-and-white wall of text with zero graphics because they are interested in sound research backed by good data. These are our invested audience – such as researchers, academics, our think tank counterparts, and policymakers. But others may need to be primed for curiosity to be made aware of the issues we are trying to highlight. 

Encouraging this curiosity requires consistent, interesting, and simple messaging. We, therefore, harness the power of social media to get our message across. Information and ideas from our publications are translated into collaterals such as flipbooks, explainers, infographics, short videos, and many more. They not only help with public buy-ins of our work – but they also serve as educational materials to get people more engaged with policy debates. In the long run, we are hopefully building a Malaysian audience that is not intimidated by the world of policymaking, even if they are not policy specialists. 

This, we feel, makes our research democratic, thus helping to foster more informed policy debates in the country’s public spaces. People who may be the subject of decisions that are taken by the policymakers may well be in the position to articulate their responses cohesively as a result of their engagement with our work. Those in need of getting their voices and demands heard by the policymakers may well find allies among members of the public who are well-informed about their needs and struggles.

Shedding the elitist image

As we continue engaging with our audience, we remind ourselves that being sensitive to the local contexts within which debates and conversations take place is vital. We are painfully aware that think tanks everywhere are seen as part of an elite phenomenon. In Malaysia, the use of English as the main medium through which to communicate their research may limit the reach of think tanks to only specific audiences and disconnect them from the communities they intend to serve. Moving away from this – to offer contents in Malay, the national language, as well as other local languages – is a challenge that we at The Centre are actively trying to address.