On 30th July last year, The Centre opened their virtual doors with the intention to be a think tank dedicated to researching policy issues from a centrist point of view. Twelve months, a change in government and a global pandemic later, our doors are still open and we stand by our founding objective more than ever (and even more virtually as we continue to observe social distancing SOPs).
It’s been a tumultuous year but it has also been a promising one for us. Response to the research, writing and policy positions we’ve put forward has been encouraging. We’ve been able to pursue interesting research questions within resource and data gathering constraints. We’ve even managed to have some fun along the way.
And so we’re beyond grateful and humbled for the many experiences we’ve had so far. Here are our top 5 learnings as a Malaysian start-up think tank during an immensely eventful year.
1: ‘How’ is sometimes a more important question than ‘what’.
It is really difficult to define what a think tank is, partly because so many different types of organisations fit the description. Some focus on primary research while some mainly do advocacy while others do some combination of the two plus other activities.
We like On Think Tank’s take, which is that think tanks exist to influence policy. As a definition it’s perhaps overly simple but it does lead us to the more productive question of how best we can influence policy.
Given the focus of other think tanks as well as the composition of The Centre’s pioneer team of researchers, we decided to complement Malaysia’s policy ecosystem with a blend of survey-based research, textual & behavioural analysis and investigative journalism. The work should also be accessible, which is why we integrate illustrations, Instagram stories, quick polls, online calculators and other fun stuff.
2: Diversity is critical.
For a small team, The Centre’s full-time crew is quite diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and political leanings. This diversity is by design – without diversity, the work would definitely suffer from bias or ignorance.
Case in point: a stock image we published drew pointed criticism from some readers who felt that the photo maligned Malays. Ordinarily we would’ve caught it but some of our ‘sensitivity experts’ were busy that day and the rest of the team was blissfully unaware of the mini-bomb in our midst. Diversity, people! (and time management).
3: Making sure the work translates is tricky.
One of the things we wanted to do from the outset was to provide more Bahasa Malaysia content so that the discussion can transcend urban English-speaking bubbles. Making the material accessible for a BM audience however is not straightforward.
We’ve occasionally attracted criticism on the quality of our Bahasa Malaysia writing – and quite rightly so! Vocabulary can be an issue. Official translations as per Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka aren’t necessarily terms everyone is familiar with (perlindungan sosial, anyone?) and don’t always flow well in a piece.
But more importantly, there is a significant difference in thinking and writing in English vs. in Bahasa Malaysia. There is the issue of nuance and sensibility that goes beyond just finding the right words. As we’re increasingly discovering, rather than translating from one language it is sometimes just better to write a fresh new piece in the intended language.
4: Influencing policy is hard.
The job isn’t done and dusted when your research report is ready and you’ve pressed publish. Rather, that’s when the hard work begins. It’s one thing to put your proposal out into the world, quite another to have the right people take notice. And even when the right people sit up and take notice, things change outside our control that can impact progress or the relevance of our work.
Influencing policy and effecting change is a marathon, not a sprint – you have to have persistence, always adapt and be in it for the long haul.
5: Asking the right questions is very hard.
Everything we do begins with a research question about a known problem or a challenge. In order to correctly grasp the nature of the problem however, we need to ask the right questions, which is easier said than done.
Before you can ask the right questions, you need to have a good understanding of the subject matter at hand. This requires innate curiosity and diligence of course, but it also requires an ability to be objective and non-partisan. At the same time, you also need to keep yourself in check so that you don’t go down research rabbit holes and get lost.
It’s a delicate balance and having colleagues that can challenge and probe your thinking is key (which is why diversity is crucial: see point 2).
So there you have it, the top 5 things we’ve learned in a year of think-tanking. We’ve got more exciting research coming up as we begin our second year. We thank you profusely for your continued support so far and we hope you stay tuned for more!