Entitled “The Future of Freedom”, the ninth anniversary celebration of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) and the commemoration of the birthday of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj was a simple but elegant evening, consisting of four speeches and a book launch accompanied by a tasty dinner.
I began by welcoming members of Tunku Abdul Rahman’s family and two special guest speakers – Dr Ong Kian Ming and Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman – noting that while the director of the International Science Council regional office for Asia and the Pacific could not possibly have a fake degree, deputy ministers in the Malaysian government can.
Luckily, Ong went to my alma mater and I have verified that his degree from the London School of Economics is genuine.
There was a suggestion made after May 9 last year that Ideas should close shop since a new government had now been formed. But these statements were abysmally ignorant because the pursuit of liberty and justice does not end with a mere change of government, particularly when that government is a coalition of disparate components and agendas.
Or it was astronomically optimistic because even if a government has noble ideals and a singular motivation, disruption in politics is constant.
We have already seen such disruption in the form of policy reversals, new (substantive) allegations of corruption, bickering about leadership and the shameless politics of division that many voters thought we would leave behind.
Thus, I was pleased to hear someone say more recently that Ideas is needed now more than ever to strive for a consistent voice of reason in a muddled political environment, to produce high-quality research that informs debate, to advocate in areas of public policy that others overlook, to initiate special projects (such as Ideas Academy and the Ideas Autism Centre) so that policy proposals have solid groundings, and to always remind everyone that the founding vision of our country is still relevant and attainable.
While last year’s general election showed that there can be beacons of democratic hope in a world of populism, authoritarianism and division, such beacons are fragile.
We have a responsibility to ensure that the democratic space that has been created is strengthened – and we can only do this with the support of like-minded individuals and organisations from diverse sections of society so that our funding is as democratic as our objectives.
Ideas chief executive officer Ali Salman then gave a detailed account of our work over the past year, including RM25.3mil of PR value generated, 20 publications and 41 conferences, forums, seminars and workshops across the themes of inclusive development for all, ensuring trust in institutions, advancing a competitive economy and Asean.
Ong delivered an important message in his keynote address: that the fruits of capitalism and globalisation are perceived to be failing by many sections of the population, causing real feelings of alienation and discontent.
But while some (including his more left-wing colleagues in his party) would argue that the system should be overhauled or replaced by a more socialist approach, he succinctly articulated what lies at the heart of Ideas’ mission: to show that capitalism can and should serve the most disadvantaged people in our society.
Intervention, he pointed out, does not necessarily equate to authoritarianism, but rather can mean institutional reform that strengthens markets by decentralising monopolies, reforming the labour market and encouraging competition through smarter regulations.
Importantly, markets need to develop a heart, a face and a compelling narrative in order to thrive, particularly in the face of the dominant narrative of authoritarian intervention today.
Dr Serina Abdul Rahman from the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute also highlighted the disparity between the urban rich and the rural poor, and stressed the need for politicians to develop policies that uplift everyone.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, she said, was one such leader who was able to empathise with and articulate solutions for different parts of Malaysian society.
Aptly, the second edition of Dialog: Thoughts of Tunku’s Timeless Thinking was then launched. Featuring new essays by Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Khairy Jamaluddin among others, this book contains memories and inspirations of our first prime minister by Malaysians from diverse backgrounds and professions.
The evening concluded with a new frontier for Ideas with Mazlan, Malaysia’s leading astrophysicist, sharing her thoughts on the future of freedom.
She spoke about the importance of shared assets of humanity like the environment that should be protected, but her views on the role of technology and its enabling effect on freedom, particularly towards space exploration, were particularly exciting.
While the mission of Ideas remains the furtherance of our country’s founding principles, it remains my belief that strong democratic institutions are the only way for us to reach the stars.
First published in The Star, 15 February 2019.