Steven Thiru (vice president, Malaysian Bar), Tricia Yeoh (COO, IDEAS), Christopher Leong (president, Malaysian Bar), Cynthia Gabriel (director, C4) and Dato’ Malik Imtiaz pose with a copy of the IDEAS memorandum on how to reform the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
Malaysia has a tradition of classical liberal thought at its core, dating back to its 1957 Proclamation of Independence, which stated that the nation should be “founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations.” Even so, reactionary forces have vast influence in modern Malaysia, with a government that arrests journalists for “sedition,” crackdowns on religious liberty, calls for Internet censorship, and a political system often divided along racial lines.
Amid it all is Atlas Network partner Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), founded in 2010 to promote the ideas of individual liberty, free markets, limited government, and the rule of law. Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer of IDEAS, recently graduated from Atlas Leadership Academy (ALA), and spoke about her experiences in the program and how they allow her to fight for freedom more effectively at home.
Tell us a little about your organization and career history. What inspired you to work for a free-market group?
IDEAS is an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We are the only classical liberal think tank in the country, and all our work is based on the four principles of individual liberty, free markets, the rule of law, and limited government. Broadly, IDEAS has four units: namely, research and advocacy projects in the education, political economy and governance, outreach (reaching out to young Malaysians), and Southeast Asia Network for Development (SEANET) units. But we also get involved in projects on the ground; we run an autism centre for children from low-income families, as well as an academy for secondary-level refugees and stateless children.
I’ve always been involved in public policy in Malaysia in one way or another, but I was inspired to join IDEAS after seeing how serious they were about making real policy change based on liberal solutions. I suppose I am drawn to the “intellectualism” of the entire setup, that public policy is and ought to be shaped based on principles as opposed to expedient thinking. In a way, we form an oasis in the middle of what is pretty much a desert of liberal thought, and it is this challenge that motivates me to do even more. Today, I’m chief operating officer at IDEAS and basically ensure all streams of work are running smoothly.
How did you learn about Atlas Leadership Academy, and what drove you to get involved?
I learned about Atlas Leadership Academy through IDEAS’s connections with Atlas Foundation itself, which has supported our organisation from its very inception and during the early years, right up to today. My first exposure to ALA was via its numerous webinars, which were really useful when I first joined IDEAS, especially rethinking the way we communicate and market our research and overall advocacy work. Of course, joining the Think Tank MBA last November was the best opportunity to get involved with the network fully, learn about other think tanks around the world and realign our own institutional goals to achieve what we want to back home.
What were your biggest takeaways from the trainings you received?
One of the biggest takeaways is the growing global family that I feel part of in the liberty movement. Many times, we feel this journey is a solitary one, in which we operate in isolation, especially challenging in our own environment that does not encourage liberalism in many ways. So, getting to know people from other parts of the world who are also working on similar projects, for a similar cause, has been greatly refreshing. Knowing there are numerous supporters out there championing the cause in our respective countries is also a great boost for morale. Having that network helps whenever we have shared problems and concerns, solutions of which can therefore be worked on together.
On the more tangible side, I’ve definitely gained from the Think Tank MBA in being able to think more strategically about think tanks, and recognising that just because we work for non-profits, this does not mean we should short-change our stakeholders in terms of our quality and outputs. I think the Atlas Network experience reminds me that there is a level of professionalism that we ought to bring into the think tank world, which many non-profits fail to deliver on.
What advice would you give someone aspiring to work in the liberty movement?
This depends on how tough an environment the person lives in, really! But assuming that it is a tough country (just like mine, Malaysia), my advice would be to be prepared for the long haul. Equip yourself with the right skillsets to build something of high quality over the long run. Be prepared for disappointing turns of events, which are outside of your locus of control. Celebrate every victory, small as it may be, and grab any opportunity that comes your way — even if the window’s opening is ever so slight. Be willing to listen to all perspectives, and discuss them openly and politely, but stay principled to your beliefs. It’s also really important to be organised and strategic about your work; choose the issues that you want to work on carefully, but be focused on what can be achieved. And, finally, have fun and enjoy the ride!
Tricia Yeoh will host a webinar on May 7, 2015: Developing a Research Agenda for your Organization