The departure of Wan Saiful Wan Jan from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) marks the beginning of a new chapter for the think tank that I co-founded with him and Wan Mohd Firdaus Wan Mohd Fuaad back in 2010.
I knew them both from London when we were both being exposed to the work of British think tanks and their relationship with political parties and how, ultimately, this influenced the parliamentary process, public opinion and the evolution of government policy. We realised that there was nothing like that in Malaysia, and we emulated this concept by establishing the Malaysia Think Tank London in 2006. Encouraging responses to its output prompted us to set up permanently in Malaysia as IDEAS.
Although the two Wans were members of UMNO and PAS respectively, both believed in the need for an independent think tank inspired by principles and ideals of our first Prime Minister and the spirit of Merdeka that he embodied. The most experienced among us, Wan Saiful, became Chief Executive Officer while Firdaus and I embarked on other careers while remaining as board members to set the strategy.
Since then, IDEAS has grown in numbers, visibility, impact and stature. This has been verified not only by media appearances and international think tank indices, but also our many collaborations with civil servants and political parties on all sides. With the government itself we have engaged on a wide range of policy issues from education, property rights to international trade, and even delivered a national unity youth programme with the Prime Minister’s Department. Constitutional and statutory bodies too have sought our expertise and independence, including the Election Commission which appointed IDEAS as a monitor during the 13th General Election. Perhaps most uniquely, IDEAS Academy and the IDEAS Autism Centre are directly improving the lives of children. I am confident that under the Chairmanship of Tan Sri Rebecca Sta Maria, our executive team will continue building on these successes despite the departure of our hitherto CEO.
When good people leave civil society to become politicians, it means that there are fewer people to hold other politicians to account. Replacing such people is not easy either: the pool of intelligent, capable and principled individuals willing to work on an NGO rather than corporate sector salary is small (and working at a think tank won’t get you any contracts from state or federal governments).
But those making the transition presumably feel that their beliefs and efforts can be better realised through their new chosen platform; though of course cynics will say that they are hungry for power.
As some of the successful candidates (or in some cases, senators appointed from the NGO or corporate worlds) from the 2008 and 2013 general elections have shown, individuals who were once free of any political loyalties find themselves having to toe the party line: they may ignore things that once enraged them, and attack people they didn’t previously care much about. Over time, they might speak an entirely different language and be motivated by completely different objectives: in the worse case scenario, they may lose their principles, too. Only a minority manage to successfully maintain an individual identity within their parties, though all will claim that their presence has influenced the party in a better direction, whatever the cost to their independence.
Particularly in today’s climate, the personal cost of entering politics is high and comes immediately. Everyone will question your choice of party, and friends who support the other side (or no side at all) may avoid being seen with you. This divisiveness – of political preferences determining social interactions – is a sign of how immature our democracy is, and I hope things will be different after this year’s election.
Interestingly, the climate was different when IDEAS established. During and after Pak Lah’s premiership one could speak of wings within the main parties: the progressives and the conservatives in UMNO, the Erdogans and the ulama faction in PAS. That diversity of views was healthy for Malaysian civil society. Since then, the configuration has changed both across and within the parties, with the creation of Bersatu and Amanah. Within the parties, the mantra of “party unity” (i.e. unquestioned loyalty to the leader) dominates, rather than a commitment to a political philosophy.
For many in civil society, none of the parties today sufficiently represent the political philosophy of Merdeka to consider joining any of them. But others come to different conclusions, and it is their right to do so.
Good luck to those who sincerely believe that they can make a difference to their chosen party and the country through politics, and good luck Wan Saiful.