Ideas First in Southeast Asia

The idea was hatched in London when three Malaysian natives, at the time working for British political consultancies, found out they had one unique thing in common – they were libertarians. In Malaysia, a country that is divided by fierce ethnic and religious loyalty, people stick to their clan, vote for their own and expect politicians to fight for a slice of the pie. The ideas of limited government are scarce. When Tunku ‘Abidin, Wan Saiful and Wan Firdaus – all supporters of different political parties – came together to form the free-market Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) they received more than a few shocked reactions. They didn’t find it odd. “We share the same ideas, and our politics don’t matter,” Saiful says. “There are four main ideas – individual liberty, free markets, the rule of law, and limited government – which we seek to embed into policymaking.”

“The problem is that we as a people have become accustomed to government intervention. Across so many sectors, when there is a problem, the first question is ‘what should the government do to fix this?’” adds ‘Abidin, “…when we could be saying ‘hold on: what can the community do, and how can we get the private sector – through open tenders and transparent competition – to help?’”

In just over three years, IDEAS (formerly known as Malaysia Think Tank London) has published a book titled Who Needs an Islamic State?, held over a dozen conferences, produced pamphlets on private education and press freedom, written over 200 articles for mainstream media, distributed policy briefings to all Members of Parliament, and brought together politicians from two major parties to sit on its Cross-Party Advisory Group.

In 2008, Atlas awarded the group a grant to investigate the common grounds between Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Islam and raise awareness for the book and its ideas in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Co-founder and Chief Executive of IDEAS, Wan Saiful participated in Atlas’s two-week Think Tank MBA program in 2010.

IDEAS partnered with Atlas to launch AkademiMerdeka.org, to promote free-markets, peace and liberty in the languages of Bahasa Melayu (spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei) and Bahasa Indonesia (spoken in Indonesia and East Timor). In February AkademiMerdeka.org held two Freedom Academies – the first in Kuala Lumpur on the subject, “Constitutionalism and Understanding Rule of Law.” Forty participants from ten different Malaysian states attended the event. The second academy was held at Lido Lake Resort in Indonesia on “Defending Individual Rights in Politics and Economics.” Thirty students were selected from an unexpected 98 applicants for the program, the first of its kind in Indonesia.

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