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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The prince of wit and ideas

Author and think-tank chief Tunku Zain Al-Abidin, noble by birth and personal attainment, speaks unaffectedly about his work as a writer of 'frivolous stuff' and advocate of 'positive change'.

INTERVIEW

The place where the interview takes place – in his offce at Bukit Tunku, Kuala Lumpur – is spartan. Although nothing in it befits a prince, Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Muhriz looks decidedly commfortable. In fact, it seems a little surreal to be sitting across a member of royalty clad in a simple teal collared T-shirt and khakis that have become quite familiar with the inner workings of a washing machine. If first impressions are anything to go by, Abidin, as he calls himself, is anything but a sharp dresser. The same doesn’t apply to his mind, which will shame the sharpest tool in the shed.

The second son of the Negri Sembilan ruler Tuanku Muhriz Tuanku Munawir and Tuanku Aishah Rohani Tengku Besar Mahmud, Abidin is president and founder of IDEAS, Malaysia’s first think-tank dedicated to promoting market-based solutions to public policy challenges. It is inspired by the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman, as stated in the 1957 Proclamation of Independence: that Malaysia would “be forever a sovereign democratic and independent state 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”.

Abidin will turn 29 in July. That would be 29 going on 79 for he is indeed an old and wise soul. Read his column in the Sun, Abiding Times, which carries the no-fanfare byline of Abidin Muhriz and is peppered wit and astute observation, and you’ll get the idea.

In one of the articles, “Power (Closer) To The People”, he writes, “One of the key qualities of a good kuih lapis, I am told, is how many layers it should have and how thick each should be. Aesthetics, consistency and bite are all important, and each layer should be able to survive on its own if peeled off. Tiered democracy is much the same: in order to have a good final product, the size and powers of federal, state and local government need to complement each other so voters know who is doing what.” He was 26 at the time.

Abidin received his primary education at the Alice Smith School before boarding at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, England. Having left Malaysia at age 13, he did what he calls “merantau” (roamed) for 12 years before returning home. “Leaving Malaysia for England was very exciting,” he says, eyes glinting at the memory. “I was the fourth generation to study in the United Kingdom and it was a totally different culture. It was tough, but a fantastic experience nonetheless.”

In another article, he shares this experience: “By the time I was appointed house captain, the world had changed… Accordingly, punishments were dished out far less. I only issued a single pink chit. I could not contain myself once, though, when one young lad was being unacceptably racist. So I swung a cricket bat in his direction… I had to explain my actions to the housemaster (which was fine), and later befriended the boy, who admitted the error of his ways.”

Several cricket bats later, Abidin went on to further his studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, studying Sociology and Government, and later completed his MSc in Comparative Politics. Upon graduation, he worked for a Westminster think-tank before becoming a parliament researcher at the House of Commons. He was also employed as a public sector consultant at the World Bank in Washington DC.

Upon returning to Malaysia in 2007, Abidin worked temporarily for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a regional shareholding management firm based in Kuala Lumpur before becoming a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“I hated my life then,” he confesses with a grimace. “I spent a year there and it was enough. It’s just too sterile, I guess. It doesn’t feel like the real thing.” There is a little shiver of wicked delight in hearing a prince say this, for it is usual to assume that they have to be politically correct all the time.

Coming back home was also quite a sobering affair, starting with the most basic need – friends. “I had no friends when I came back,” he laughs. “I had to start making friends all over again! My forging of new friendships led me to Karim Raslan. He really gave me a good run through of the Malaysian political situation and its history is general. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to have met him,” he says of the columnist and consultant.

Here, Abidin answers some questions about his book, his organisation’s work, and the education of underprivileged children.

Reading your articles in its book form, do you see an evolution in your writing style?

There’s certainly a change. When I first stated writing the column, I thought the editors at the Sun wanted me to write about the constitution and all the other serious stuff. But I was pleasantly surprised at how they welcomed the frivolous stuff as well (smiles). I am aware that not everyone will like or agree with what I have written, but it’s in no way a reflection of other people’s opinion. I am also not someone who has wielded power; so my writing is impartial because I can afford to be.

You’ve said, “Many Malaysian books are actually shameless regurgitations of newspaper columns”. Why then did you do the same?

It was flattering and humbling at the same time to realise that quite a number of people follow my column. Some of them asked me to compile the articles into a book and there seemed to be genuine demand, no matter how small. So decided, yes, I’ll do it.

With the book out, many more have taken notice of your thoughts and some might even hope that you will help bring about a much-needed positive change in the country. What kind of pressure comes with this?

To be honest, I started writing the column on a whim and I thought it’d be something fun to do. But when I set up IDEAS, I did it because I’d always wanted to start a think-tank that I hoped would bring some positive change. I honestly didn’t think that it would have to become high profile! I didn’t plan to make a career out of this.

Do people associate you with political leanings?

People tend to erroneously think that I’d be politically inclined because I have a think-tank. But we don’t take sides at IDEAS. What we do here is done with the thought of serving everyone. This organisation isn’t politically inclined in any way. Being politically un-inclined is good for IDEAS as we have the ability to speak to both sides with one goal in mind – to make lives better, one step at a time.

Is IDEAS doing that with the Tadika Wau Bebas project?

I am a member of the board of trustees for Yayasan Chow Kit. One of the things we advocate is that private and social enterprise schools aren’t just for the social elite. There are cases where children aren’t able to enrol in a public school because they don’t have proper documentation because they are either stateless, trafficked or are refugees.

(Yayasan Chow Kit was formerly known as Nur Salam. It grew out of a day-care centre, or Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak (PAKK), for the Chow Kit neighbourhood.)

How long has it been since the idea for Tadika Wau Bebas germinated?

Since 2008, we have been working with Yayasan Chow Kit to establish Tadika Wau Bebas. This is a social- enterprise kindergarten that will provide quality preschool education to urban poor children who are at risk and who have no access to any form of education. It will be open to all children regardless of status.

Will it follow the standard Malaysian curriculum?

Yes, it will, in addition to a creative curriculum for kindergarten and we are looking at an initial enrolment of 60 children. The long-term goal is for students to pass the government exams and have access to mainstream education, whether in public or private schools. In the afternoons, enrichment programmes will be offered.

What are some of your thoughts about the Malaysian education system?

In many instances, it has become mostly about passing school exams. And extracurricular activities are slowly phasing out. Parents tell me that the school orchestra is shutting down because the school doesn’t have the budget for it. It doesn’t help that there are some quarters who say that playing the tuba is un-Islamic. Education should have a balance of academia, classroom activities, sports and a choice of other learning options. What I think is wrong is that the children are not asked for their ideas and told to be quiet.

What would you like to say to those who have read your articles and books?

Give me feedback, please. I need to know what you think and you have a right to have your opinions heard. I hope to be able to use what is said constructively and make something good out it.

For more information, visit www.ideas.org.my - FMT

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