February 20, 2012
Traveling abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday, Malaysia's Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) Director Ng Yeen Seen received an unexpected hongbao (红包), or New Year gift, from an unlikely source.
Just two days before the first day of celebrations in Malaysia, CPPS was named the 16th top think-tank in Asia, out of a total 1,198, by a US university that ranks such institutions each year based on a survey of 6,545 think tanks worldwide.
"If a friend had not SMSed me, I wouldn't have known," said Ng, 32.
The International Relations Programme of the University of Pennsylvania launched its 2011 Global Go-To Think Tanks Report January 18th at United Nations Headquarters in New York.
To Ng, the recognition is a sign that CPPS is being noticed at a global level – an achievement for an organization with a budget under $5 million – at a time when Malaysians want to get more involved in bettering their nation.
"They are no longer content to be arm chair critics or to just yap about the state of things in a coffee shop and then leave things be," Ng told Khabar Southeast Asia.
CPPS aims to foster "open-minded dialogue, enlightened leadership and better governance" and to uphold "an independent, non-partisan, and non-racial stance in its research," according to its website.
Research priorities include projects on national unity with an emphasis on inter-ethnic relations.
Since 2008, the centre has looked at a variety of topics including freedom of information, internet policing, Prime Minister Najib Razak's first 100 days in office, and minimum wage.
CPPS promotes open discussions and forums on its Facebook page, urging the public to join in the debate with top thinkers on issues as diverse as the general elections and language education.
The prestigious new ranking is not the first time CPPS has been in the spotlight, according to Ng. In 2007, it was on front pages for weeks when former director Lim Teck Ghee proposed ending the government's New Economic Policy, launched in 1971 to reduce economic disparity between Malays and non-Malays.
Ng is quick to point out that the centre's purpose is to enhance public debate, not to engender conflict, in covering such sensitive topics.
"We don't take our emotions to the street. We do our advocacy work through research, forums, and workshops. At the end, it's up to the people and government to decide based on the facts we have presented to them," she told Khabar Southeast Asia.
This year's top think tank prize went to the Brookings Institution in the United States, but the man behind the rankings, University of Pennsylvania's Think Tank and Civil Societies Programme Director Dr. James McGann, said it is the new, non-Western institutions that create a stir in the think tank community.
"The real story is not what are the top think tanks in the US and Europe – it's really the surfacing of these gems that are not as well-known but are becoming policy powerhouses in Asia and elsewhere," he told Khabar Southeast Asia.
"The vote is a strong vote of confidence and attention … and well-deserved to the institution in Malaysia."
Another Malaysian organisation, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, was ranked 13th in the category of best new think tanks formed in the last 18 months.