Asia Liberty Forum spotlights efforts to reduce barriers to prosperity in the region

Award winners Amit Chandra and Tricia Yeoh at Asia Liberty Forum 2017.

Asia Liberty Forum brought together more than 225 leaders, advocates, and think tank professionals from 22 countries to explore the work being done to break down the barriers to prosperity in the region.

“We’re seeking to tear down the market barriers that impede free markets and free enterprise for the 1 billion people of India,” said Amit Chandra, associate director for policy advisory at the New Delhi–based Centre for Civil Society (CCS). Chandra accepted the prestigious 2017 Asia Liberty Award on behalf of CCS for its “Jeevika: Law, Liberty & Livelihood Campaign.”

Since 2009, CCS has pursued its Jeevika campaign to reduce the barriers that impede free markets and free enterprise, while simultaneously championing the freedom of India’s poorest citizens to pursue livelihoods unburdened by overbearing government regulation. To this end, Jeevika focuses primarily on liberalizing India’s informal economy, improving the lives of groups such as street vendors, rural artisans, and small entrepreneurs. Successful and sustained advocacy saw CCS succeed in securing and implementing the Street Vendors Act of 2014 in Rajasthan — landmark legislation protecting and legitimizing street vendors. The “Repeal 100 Laws Project,” a key element of the Jeevika Campaign, also succeeded in having 19 out of 25 onerous business laws repealed in Maharashtra, an influential state in western India.

Think Tank Shark Tank winner takes on price controls in Malaysia

In addition to the Asia Liberty Award, the Think Tank Shark Tank – Asia competition was held during the forum.

The winner of the 2017 Think Tank Shark Tank – Asia competition was Tricia Yeoh of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Malaysia) for her pitch on a strategy to end price controls on small businesses in Malaysia.

“My pitch was about the story of Selva, a small sundry shop owner in a small town near Kuantan, the state capital of Pahang, Malaysia,” Yeoh said. “His shop was raided in October 2016 because he was selling some laundry detergent at $2.65 instead of the $2.45 that the government said he should be selling it at, so just 20 cents difference. And then the government asked him to fill out some complicated forms, but he’s not highly educated, so he couldn’t fill out those forms. So then the government charged him in court for failure to comply with the information request, and he had to pay $2,000. There are many others like him who are being charged in court and fined a lot of money. So our campaign, #FREEMYBUSINESS, aims to change this and finally break down all the barriers to prosperity."

Yeoh explained her campaign in a recent column for the Malaysian newspaper the Sun Daily.

“Thousands of stories like these mean that the country loses as much as US$12 billion a year on cumbersome business regulations, economic opportunities that we would have otherwise gained,” Yeoh wrote. “The poorest of the poor are affected, and worse, it stifles their spirit of enterprise and efforts to get themselves out of poverty. The signs are already showing. The SME growth rate fell by 20% from 2011 to 2015 (7.3% to 6.1%), and worse, the total early-stage entrepreneurial activity rate — or the start-up rate in short — fell by almost 50% from 2010 to 2016 (4.96% to 2.9%). If this trend continues, this will be of great concern to the Malaysian economy, since at the moment SMEs contribute more than one third to the country's GDP, at about 36.3% as at 2016. They are the true drivers of growth as they create jobs, and perhaps more importantly, they are the very epitome of human potential that strives against all odds to better their lives and that of their families.”

A woman delivers a speech at the Asia Liberty Forum.

Tricia Yeoh of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Malaysia) receives the Think Tank Shark Tank – Asia competition grand prize.

A special thank you to the host of the competition, Lawson Bader of DonorsTrust, and to the judges of the competition, Dan Grossman of Atlas Network, Daniel Green of the John Templeton Foundation, Luis Miranda of CCS, Rajesh Jain of Free A Billion, and Terry Kibbe of Free the People.

The 2017 Asia Liberty Forum, sponsored by Atlas Network and co-hosted by CCS, is part of Atlas Network’s Regional Liberty Forums event series, also taking place in 2017 in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and MENA (Middle East and North Africa).

“This is the 20th anniversary year for CCS, so co-hosting Asia Liberty Forum was a great way to kick off the celebrations of this year,” said Parth Shah, president of CCS. “Equally important was to bring people together from around the region. In Asia many challenges are very similar, so what we face in India is very similar to what people face in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, for example — all of the challenges are quite similar. And so learning from each other is very important. And there’s as much work that happens outside the conference room of the forum as happens inside, and that’s a very important part of this forum. People get to meet each other, exchange notes, talk about what has worked what hasn’t worked, and build camaraderie among the people and partners in the region who are fighting for the cause.”

Two men proudly hold a plaque at the Asia Liberty Forum.

Amit Chandra and Parth Shah, president of CCS, receive the 2017 Asia Liberty Award.

Other highlights of the forum included several break-out sessions on topics like the compatibility of Islam and freedom, strategies on advancing economic opportunities, property rights as a human right, and effective think tank leadership and management. “Events like Asia Liberty Forum showcase just how much is being accomplished by Atlas Network partners, and how much they stand to gain by learning from one another so successful strategies can be adapted to new environments,” said Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas Network. “They also recharge our batteries by reminding us that the cause of liberty promises greataer opportunity and raised living standards for all people in society.”

As part of the concluding night's programming, prior to the gala Freedom Dinner, Junjie Ma, researcher with the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, China, gave a heartfelt toast to freedom. “I'm bringing back with me teachings of liberty and of the best qualities of humanity,” Ma said. “But most importantly, I'm bringing back with me liberty and hope.”

A man delivers a speech at a podium at the Asia Liberty Forum.

Junjie Ma of the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, China, gives a heartfelt toast to freedom.

Ma’s toast was followed by Amit Varma, best-selling writer and publisher of IndiaUncut.com, who gave the keynote address, “Freedom in India.” Varma spoke on the recent changes in India’s landscape of freedom and focused on how India’s unfolding demographic transformation can make it the most significant battleground for freedom in the history of humankind. Varma gave his thoughts on the current government in India and the overall landscape of freedom in India. “A party on the campaign trail is like a young man wooing a woman,” said Varma. “He’ll be on his best behavior, he’ll tell her whatever she wants to hear. Governance is what happens after marriage … the girl finds out the truth about the guy.” See the full talk here.

A man speaks on stage at the Asia Liberty Forum.

Amit Varma, best-selling writer and publisher of IndiaUncut.com, gives the keynote address, “Freedom in India.”

Asia Liberty Forum was preceded by intensive training sessions as part of Atlas Network’s Atlas Leadership Academy "Asia Think Tank Training — 'Thinking Big,'" both of which were held at the Leela Mumbai Hotel in Mumbai, India.

A group poses outdoors for a photo at the Asia Liberty Forum.

Atlas Leadership Academy participants celebrate the completion of an intensive training.

Asia Liberty Forum was made possible by the generosity of several donors — most prominently, the John Templeton Foundation and the Smith Family Foundation.

Please join Atlas Network in 2018 for Asia Liberty Forum, Feb. 10–11 in Jakarta, Indonesia, co-hosted by the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS).