Mannkal Economic Education Foundation

Mannkal Student Internship Blog

IDEAS Malaysia

Joel O’Mara – Week 9

Joel OMara, 1 February 2016

This week IDEAS held an event in another state on reforming the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. This comes at an interesting time as the Malaysian government is currently involved in a variety of scandals which highlight the dire corruption issue in the country. Prime Minister Najib is under intense scrutiny following announcements on Jan. 26 by Swiss authorities that as much as US$4 billion has been stolen from the state-backed 1MDB investment fund, and a report in France that two officials of a state-owned defence contractor were indicted in December for bribing Najib in the 1996 US$1 billion purchase of French submarines. The Attorney General recently declared the Prime Minister free of any wrongdoing regarding the USD $700,000 million that ended up in his personal account. He claims it was a donation from the Saudi royal family. It is a vital part of IDEAS’ mission to hold the country leaders accountable to the public for their actions.

This week the IDEAS team also watched the budget announcement by the Prime Minister on television in the meeting room. One of the key aspects of the budget is that some spending plans had to be slashed due to the slump in oil prices. The state owned oil company Petronas contributes to a third of government revenue, and with oil prices dipping to as low as $30 a barrel, it is bad news for Malaysia’s fiscal position and level of public debt.

I am finishing this week with another long weekend, as Malaysia is enjoying three long weekends in a row, with a two day break for Chinese New Year next weekend.

Standing in front of the Petronas towers

Julian Coleman – Week 9

Julian Coleman, 1 February 2016

I am currently in Langkawi relaxing at a beach side resort. It is a nice end to what was a significant week for the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and an tumultuous week for Malaysia.

On Tuesday IDEAS distributed our paper on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) to the Members of Parliament before it was discussed. The bill was passed, which came as a relief to IDEAS, one of the few voices in Malaysia in favour (although with reservations) of the TPPA.

It was also the week that the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was cleared by the Attorney General (AG) of any wrong doing regarding the $700 million USD that was found to be in his personal bank account. The AG affirmed Najib’s claims that the money was an anonymous donation from the Saudi Royal Family to show gratitude to him for his efforts in combating terrorism, and that most of the money was returned.

IDEAS’ CEO and well known commentator here in Malaysia, Wan Saiful posted sometime after the AG’s statement, “Any donors out there want to donate to [IDEAS], please put directly into my bank account. I will return any extras.”

There are so many unanswered questions surrounding this situation and the findings of the AG do little to put the matter to rest. The AG is appointed by the PM. He is based out of the PM’s office and can be dismissed by the PM as the last one was under a year ago. Whether or not he has had an influence on his findings is open to speculation but it is clear that there is that perception. This highlights the need for the reform, Malaysia Anti Corruption Commission and accompanying laws including the role of the AG in order to resort faith in the Malaysian political system.

Joel O’Mara – Week 8

Joel OMara, 27 January 2016

This week in IDEAS, some key policy papers are being finalised by the staff to be published. This includes the paper on Malaysia and the TPP that I had been working on. The TPP has become a priority for IDEAS as they recognise the importance of integrating Malaysia into the world economy. The potential gains from the TPP are immense as it will create access to markets such as the United States and Australia. The effort IDEAS has been making to help convince the lawmakers of Malaysia to agree to the deal is certainly commendable.

On Saturday, Julian and I attended a panel discussion held by the Penang Institute titled ”Can Islamists be Liberals?”. The panel included IDEAS CEO Wan Saiful. It was an enlightening discussion on how Islam can exist in harmony with liberty in society. The star of the panel was Mustafe Akyol, a writer and journalist from Turkey who wrote ”Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”, and he spoke of the need for Islamic societies to respect those that do not follow the Muslim practices and the state shouldn’t be playing the role of enforcing these values. The case for this position is strong, as practicing Muslims aren’t given the opportunity to morally practice their faith in free will if the state is the enforcer.

Julian Coleman – Week 8

Julian Coleman, 25 January 2016

The highlight of this week was attending a forum organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front titled “Can Islamists be Liberal?” From it I learned that since Arab Spring, some have termed the new wave of Islamic Political Movements and their seeming commitment to democratic participation in politics as the “second generation of Islamists”. Some of the more pessimistic pundits see it as a return of the old conservative Islamic politics cloaked in democratic rhetoric.

What everyone could agree was that the Arab Spring has seen Islamic organizations, long perceived as opponents of the democratic system, now vigorously participating in it.

The guest speaker, author Mustafa Akyol, pointed out that democracy is more than just getting to vote. Democracy in the Western tradition means a ‘liberal democracy’ with the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.

A quick look at the democratic condition of Muslim countries around the world seems to suggest that while most of them embraced democracy, the basic freedoms and rights are still not fully respected. According the 2014 Democratic Index, of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan, ten countries most closely associated with Islam, seven of these ten countries were listed as “authoritarian regimes”.

The other three – Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey- are only considered “hybrid regimes”, which means that while the election still took place, the leaders of the country still have a heavy hand.

Considering this, the panel discussed the problems between Islam and the idea of liberty and asked why most of the Muslim majority countries failed to adhere to liberal values? I felt one of the stronger arguments made for liberal values in the Muslim context was for the protection of those with different interpretations of Islam as well as their religions or ways of life. If one sect of Islam was to impose its values and interpretation of Islam on another there will inevitably be conflict. The next argument I found interesting was that piety cannot be imposed on the faithful, true faith comes from within. So if the ultimate goal is to maintain faith, imposing it through the government, through illiberal laws is a poor means to do so.

Attending the Islamic Renaissance Front's Forum

Enjoying a Tiger beer after work

Julian Coleman Week 7

Julian Coleman, 18 January 2016

To bring everyone up to speed on what the various units had been up to before the restructure, the COO of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Tricia Yeo, set aside a day this week for presentations. Although I have had an opportunity to work on different projects amongst the various units it was a wonderful opportunity to get a birds-eye view of the organisation and learn about all of the great things they have been doing. It incredible to see all of the unit heads talk about their areas of focus with such passion. It was also interesting to see how opinions differed on some matters, something that may not have come out had everyone stayed in their various units and not engaged in open debate as we often would as presentations would get sidetracked.

For the remainder of the week I continued the research and editing of various policy papers. Working on these papers in the manner that we have has made me give a great deal of thought to language, structure and the way we communicate. Pouring through papers and boiling them down to their core argument or creating a narrative from early drafts is a real skill and I am glad I have the opportunity to develop it.

Joel O’Mara – Week 7

Joel OMara, 18 January 2016

The IDEAS office has been very busy this week, planning events that are being held in other states as well as planning the Asia Liberty Forum. Under the new restructuring, I begun my work in the communications unit doing design work that will be uploaded to the website. I was working to design an executive summary regarding the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) reform project. This has allowed me to gain valuable skills on how to best present information in an appealing manner.

Malaysia is a country with a significant corruption problem and IDEAS has been working to promote governance reforms to reduce this. The MACC currently is restricted by what it can do to combat corruption within government. Under this reform project, the recommendation is to create an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission with constitutionally guaranteed power to stamp out corruption when necessary. This is particularly relevant as Malaysia is in the midst of a corruption scandal, the ”1MDB Scandal”, whereby USD $700 million from the government run strategic development company 1MDB has ended up in the Prime Minister’s personal bank account. This has lead to the calling by many for his resignation. corruption scandals like these highlight the important role that think-tanks such as IDEAS play in Malaysia. IDEAS also works closely with other think-tanks which fight for better governance and greater transparency, such as the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4). It has also lead me to appreciate the robust institutions in Australia, where corruption is low and the rule of law is generally followed. There seems to be a strong sense of hope within IDEAS and the Malaysian community in general that governance practices can be improved.

Julian Coleman Mannkal Blog Week 6

Julian Coleman, 11 January 2016

This week we returned for the New Year and to a restructured Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). I am in the research group and we spent the week going through a number of policy paper drafts focusing on the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and intellectual property rights.

I found it particularly interesting looking into the TPPA and the effect it will have on Malaysia. While the TPPA is by no means the perfect agreement, it nonetheless presents Malaysia with an opportunity, years in the making, that will on balance, benefit Malaysia economically and socio-politically. Malaysia’s current crop of politicians have demonstrated themselves to be populist and show little political will to change. The TPPA will serve as an important catalyst for reform and the continuation of the arguably stagnant ‘New Economic Model’ policies, meant to further liberalise the economy.

It is a step in the right direction. It is not free trade in the pure sense, but managed trade. But as Wan Saiful the CEO of IDEAS say “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Joel O’Mara – Week 6

Joel OMara, 11 January 2016

Me reading a book on LBJ

Having enjoyed the week off relaxing, it was good to come back to the IDEAS office working under a new structure. I have been placed in the new research unit, spending my time working on my TPP policy paper as well as reviewing other potential policy papers. This is a fascinating way to become educated about the political and economic issues facing Malaysia and the region in general. For example, having reviewed a potential policy paper on deforestation, I have learnt that property rights are the best way to ensure sustainable forestry for South-East Asia. In Indonesia, the forests have become property of the national government, which has led to the inefficient outcome of overuse and exploitation of resources as the knowledge of how to use the land as economical as possible isn’t there. Case studies from Nepal and Malaysia whereby local communities have been granted control of the forestry has resulted in more trees and better preservation. This highlights the notion that the market is the most effective mechanism to look after the environment, not a central government.

I have also been following the commentary of some of IDEAS’ council members. These include Nazir Razak, the managing Director/CEO of CIMB Group and Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia. They have been stressing the need for liberalisation and meaningful reform to ensure the economy of South East Asia keeps up to global standards.

Julian Coleman – Blog Week 2

Julian Coleman, 4 January 2016

By the end of my second week at The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), I have had the opportunity to get to know the staff, city and get settled. Joel, the fellow Mannkal Scholar, and I have found a nice accommodation just minutes away from the Petronas towers. We have joined a local gym and established a routine. But the exciting stuff happens at work where I have been assisting in the SEANET unit as they complete their projects for the year. The organisation is restructuring in the New Year and I have been recommended to join the research unit where I will be assisting with the production of policy papers.

In the past few days, my focus has been an upcoming event held in Sarawak, the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. For the event we are partnering up with the Malaysian Bar to call for the reform of the Malaysian Anti Corruption Committee (MACC). Recent events in Malaysia have brought into focus the need to strengthen the independence of the committee. Our COO Tricia Yeoh’s documentary, “The Rights of the Dead”, about political aide, Teoh Beng Hock, who died in 2009 under the MACC’s watch, won the Justin Louis Award at the FreedomFilmFest 2012 and was selected for screening at the 2013 Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival.

For the event, I designed the poster and called to invite local politicians, business and community leaders to attend. Over the weekend, Joel and I had an opportunity to visit the National Museum of Malaysia and learn about the region’s history stretching back thousands of years.

A quick break on the balcony of IDEAS with my two colleagues

Joel and I at the National Museum of Malaysia

Julian Mannkal Blog Week 4

Julian Coleman, 28 December 2015

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) wrapped up for the year this past week with the final day on Wednesday. On the first two days of the week,  IDEAS put final touches on their various projects. On the Wednesday we had a clean up day and reorganisation of the two-story office to accommodate for the restructure. I worked on some photos of the staff for the annual report as well as editing some documents being sent out for publication. It was just as well Joel and I were there on the clean up day as the movers didn’t show up so we were able to help with the heavy lifting. The year ended on a nice note with a staff lunch including children from the autism center run by IDEAS. The centre offers an early intervention programme for autistic children to help working parents, and to encourage parents to stay in employment. The centre does this by combing the provision of care and therapy during working hours. It also serves to demonstrate that private care can be provided at a reasonable cost. The remainder of the week was spent relaxing and catching up with friends and family over facetime and enjoying Malaysia’s take on the Christmas season.