What are the founding principles of IDEAS?
ABIDIN: IDEAS is the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. It was founded in 2006 by me and two other founders in London and re-launched in 2010 in Malaysia. What we aim for is to promote four principles: rule of law; limited government; free markets and individual liberty. We believe that these principles were at the bedrock of the nation at independence and we would like to promote them once again. In Europe, such ideas are known as classical liberal ideas or, as Americans like to call them, libertarian ideas. We are not obsessed with our ideology, but we would like to see more of these principles being applied to Malaysian policy-making. What we have been doing recently is to advocate reform in the education system, especially in public-private partnerships. We have conducted a lot of seminars on rule of law, constitutionalism, and understandings of democracy. We often visit campuses of universities and schools in order to discuss these principles with students. In addition, we have sessions with political parties and elected representatives at both State and Federal level. We are the only think-tank in Malaysia which is truly independent when it comes to politics. We are neither sponsored by a political party, nor the government, but we have cross-party advisers, comprising of members from both sides of the divide, which is very rare to find in any organization in Malaysia. That gives us a degree of access to political parties while maintaining our strict political neutrality. We do try to feed to the policy making of all political parties, but we do not have a special relationship with any of them.
Malaysia ranks very highly on the World Bank’s Easy of Doing Business Report at number 18 overall – a major improvement over 23rd in 2011. However, it ranks lower in several categories including dealing with construction permits, registering property, resolving insolvency, getting electricity, and starting a business. What needs to be done to improve these areas specifically?
ABIDIN: The Prime Minister is very aware of the imperative to improve our rank on the World Bank’s Easy of Doing Business Report. Agencies such as the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) and PEMUDAH have been set up to ensure that all has been executed according to plan. All of these new policies come under the ambit of the economic transformation program, the government transformation program and the new economic model. Another aspect of the transformation program is to strengthen the institutions. Employers have often shared with me that they are experiencing difficulties in letting people go due to regulations in certain industries. Moreover, industries with a history of political patronage may present some difficulties in regard to legislation. While the rhetoric coming from the Prime Minister, is very progressive, no one can deny that there is a lot of resistance from some players, who see the liberalization agenda as infringing upon their turf. The reformers in the government and those who support reforms in the opposition are well aware of the situation. I hope that in the future parties would work together more often in order to overcome the difficulties that they are both facing, rather than fight each other for the sake of party politics. We are positioned in a region where countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and even Myanmar are in the process of liberalization. Thus, Malaysia needs to ensure the pace of liberalization will be sufficient to retain foreign direct investment (FDI).
While the rhetoric coming from the Prime Minister, is very progressive, no one can deny that there is a lot of resistance from some players, who see the liberalization agenda as infringing upon their turf. The reformers in the government and those who support reforms in the opposition are well aware of the situation.