Malaysian think tanks and university policy institutes: Reflecting or diverging from regional expectations?

[This is a summary of the fifth working paper of the Working Paper Series, “Malaysian think tanks and university policy institutes: Reflecting or diverging from regional expectations?“]

East and Southeast Asian think tanks are often described as small, new, multi-issue organisations that avoid offending central governments. Malaysia was selected to examine if these and other generalisations have predictive value. The results showed that the country’s 19 non-university think tanks were found to be larger and more productive than the Asian stereotype would lead us to believe, and showed indications of becoming more independent. Most are active enough to successfully garner attention in leading news media as well as in scholarly publications. Surprisingly, about half operate with little or no central government funding. And about half of non-government think tanks have gone so far as to incorporate sensitive topics such as corruption, democratisation, and transparency into their policy portfolio.

At the same time, Malaysian think tanks do fit some of the generali­sations about Asian think tanks. As said to be typical of the region, their establishment in Malaysia peaked in the 1990s. Most cover multiple policy issues and are indeed clustered near the capital. High profile advocacy does appear to be uncommon. Also, as predicted, a majority participate in regional networks.

Scholars have recently expanded the working definition of think tanks to include university-based policy research centres, but they have rarely been studied in most of the world. Malaysian campuses were found to have 44 such policy-related institutes. Like non-university think tanks, they are also likely to be located in the capital region, rarely engage in advocacy campaigns, are fairly large, and generate substantial citations and publications. University centres diverged from both Asian expectations and from nearby non-university think tanks in three ways: those on campus are newer, most were established only after 2000; most target a single-issue area; and few have formal links to regional networks.

An election tsunami hit Malaysia in May 2018 washing away six decades of one-party rule. Whether on or off campus, policy researchers now have a remarkable opportunity to contribute at the dawn of the new era.

Read the paper to continue exploring Malaysia´s think tanks and policy research environment.