Written by Regina William
There are think tanks, and there are think tanks. Penang’s own think tank, the Socio-Economic and Environment Research Institute (SERI), is seeking to differentiate itself by playing a role as not just the state’s preminent think tank but also as “devil’s advocate”.
Set up in 1997 by former executive councillor Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon (now a senior research fellow at the institute), SERI is headed by former Universiti Sains Malaysia deputy vice chancellor Datuk Dr Sharom Ahmat. Its executive director is Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong.
Liew said the usual thinking is that think tanks should only carry out research required by the government. But they should instead offer policy alternatives and build long-term institutional capacity, something that SERI seeks to do, he said.
“There are too many quick fixes in this country, with too many ‘instant noodle’ policies with no emphasis on long-term policies. Whenever there are problems, consultants are called in to fix the problem… You need long-term, multi-dimensional views and strategies, not instant solutions,” he said.
“We want to change that mindset as we think a think tank should be thinking ahead of the state government and play an effective role in providing realistic yet good policy proposals and options, and engage in a different way,” he added.
Liew said SERI was unique as there are hardly any state-funded think tanks of its calibre in the country. Perak is trying to set up its own think tank and Sabah has one but what also sets SERI apart is that although it is funded by the state, it has mostly civic participation, with strong participation from the intellectual class in Penang.
He said the importance of a think tank is underestimated in Malaysia.
“You need policy think tanks to provide a second opinion to government… Even if you go to the doctor, sometimes you would opt for a second opinion. Human problems are usually complicated and multi-dimensional, you must offer different solutions and opinion so that the policy formulation process is a fruitful one. This would eventually benefit the people,” he said.
Liew, who was appointed as SERI’s executive director a year ago, has also been responsible for revamping the Penang Economic Monthly from a 20-page black-and-white publication with a circulation of 300 copies to a 66-page full-colour publication with 6,000 copies printed. PEM is increasingly being recognised as a voice of the people of Penang, he said.
SERI has also actively engaged academics, community leaders and members of the state administration on various issues, including giving input on the future of Penang through the Penang Blueprint which would be completed soon.
This year, SERI received RM200,000 from the state government for research. However, there were other grants for individual projects.
“SERI is very fortunate that we have a wealth of talent to tap on — from retired professors to community well-wishers and former senior bureaucrats like Datuk Seri Chet Singh (the first Penang Development Corporation (PDC) general manager who is now the special advisor to the chief minister on PDC affairs) who is a major driving force here,” Liew added.
He said other scholars who also contributed to SERI included Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee, Dr Chan Huan Chiang and Professor Woo Wing Thyea, all senior research fellows at SERI.
SERI’s three main areas of focus are to propel Penang in Asia, work towards the state’s sub-national government survival and for Penang to be a role model for other secondary cities in Asia to emulate.
“Moving forward, I am hoping that SERI will move into the more prominent role of projecting the name of Penang in the region, namely Asia. We are working on a new model to promote Penang in Asia via our network of intellectual engagement and linking up with others in Asia. We are also working with other institutions like Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and are in talks with other institutes in Jakarta as well,” said Liew.
He added that although things had changed over the years, Penang is still strategically located and is a name that evokes fondness and memories for many people. “Hence, we are not only looking forward but looking at history in order to link with people and linking for the future,” Liew added.
He said the second part of SERI’s key work was to strengthen the state government and local authorities in its handling of economics and administration or governance. This would include looking at having a healthier central-state relationship.
Liew said the idea was to help the state’s economy survive in a centralised government system. He said the final part of what SERI was trying to do, in particular with Goh and Chet, was to look at cities.
Currently, 80% of Penang is urban and according to the yet-to-be released National Physical Plan 2, it is estimated that by 2020, 90% of Penang will be urban, said Liew. The national average now is 65% and is estimated to increase to 75% in 2020.
“If we can govern our cities well and our cities are better managed and liveable, they will become the destination of choice and we will be able to attract people to come. SERI is providing the state government input on this with policy proposals to help turn Penang into a great place to live, play and work,” added Liew.
He said that by transforming itself, Penang would not only be a destination of choice but an example for other secondary cities in Asia to emulate.
In April, SERI was given the task of formulating the Penang Blueprint. It has already conducted 18 roundtable discussions and numerous meetings with stakeholders and is now ready to present the draft of its proposals to the state government for consideration.
Though he declined to divulge the specifics of the blueprint, Liew said it was about human talent, cities and government.
Liew stressed that the blueprint was not a masterplan but a sketch of directions, namely a conceptual plan to focus on certain areas.
“We are looking at Penang holistically, given the limitations that the state government has, how it can work in a way that is efficient and effective. It is very much an institutional approach as we are looking at improving the institutions in order to achieve the aspirations of the state government,” he added.
Besides the Penang blueprint, SERI is also carrying out minor research work for state agencies including the Economic Planning Unit, PDC and some projects for the United Nations Environmental Programme among others while boosting its series of publications, including publishing pilot studies and working papers by renowned scholars on Penang.
Liew is hoping to change the perception that think tanks are only for retired scholars by trying to attract young PhD holders to work with SERI. However, he admitted that it was an uphill battle due to the better remuneration offered by universities.
“Eventually, we would want them to have their own networking and the ability to drive programmes and stand on their own two feet and be an authority in their own work,” he added.
He said his task in reshaping SERI still needed much work and there was a long way to go.
“We are still trying to improve on our staff capacity and trying to get foreign scholars to stay with us for a longer time and also, negotiating with the state government for a larger allocation. We are hoping that via the success of our work, we would be able to generate funds from the public and not only depend on government funding,” Liew said, adding that SERI would also try to offer consultancy for private works as a means to generate funds.
He said in order to secure funding from the public, think tanks like SERI must rise to the occasion by providing creative policy solutions, and convince people that think tanks are worthy causes.
“People are prepared to donate to homes, schools but would see research as something elusive. We must change this perception via our works and garner financial support for our cause,” he added.
This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, November 15, 2010.