YAM Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin Tuanku Muhriz
– IDEAS’ Co-founder discusses libertarianism, free trade, and the Malaysian Identity.

Financial Literacy for Youths: Malaysia had the pleasure of interviewing YAM Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin Tuanku Muhriz on the 5th of April. Tunku Zain is the founding president of the Institute of Democratic and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), a think tank influenced by the ideas of Tunku Abdul Rahman and libertarian, or classical liberal, ideas. Growing up in British education, he matriculated in schools that understood education was more about moulding character and not just scoring in exams. He studied at the Alice Smith School, Marlborough College, and then the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to read Sociology and Government, and furthering his studies with a masters in Comparative Politics and Imperial History. Tunku Zain accomplished a great many during his time in academia. He established the skills to further his career in the House of Parliament, Lords and Commons, and even travelled to Washington DC for employment at the World Bank. He also flourished as a writer, contributing articles on history and politics for the Malay Mail since 2008. In his free time, he indulges in squash, tennis, and also recently adopted cycling, which is the new craze to follow.


Tunku Zain explained that when he engaged with schools back in Malaysia, there was a complaint about students who were entirely exam-centric rather than having a focus on developing themselves into full-rounded individuals—mentally and morally. He stresses that nowadays, companies increasingly understand that they need people to be good at communication and develop consciousness towards the role of a citizen as well as having a concern for global issues. Thus, Malaysians should understand that school has so much more to offer than just subjects. In fact, getting involved in extracurricular activities teaches one how to work in any entity and appreciate responsibility. “Getting yourself involved beyond the confines of a classroom is important because you learn very tangible skills that will assist you in the adult world—time management, discipline, and organizational skills.” So, a well-rounded education prepares one for life and its many challenges.

Tunku Zain and IDEAS have been passionate about shaping young minds, and have invested significant effort and resources in education, such as establishing their own autism learning centre following a research paper that they produced in the past. “You don’t often find think tanks involved in delivering education, but that is what we’ve done. We can produce all the research in the world to reaffirm that you need educational reform, but now we can go one step further and say that we have managed to do this under very limited resources whilst delivering high-quality educational outcomes.” Indeed, a very special characteristic of IDEAS is that they have shown interest in cultivating a curriculum that helps students grow. It is something that mimics the philosophy of “no child left behind”, and IDEAS has implemented it successfully in our educational climate. A think tank being able to gift children with education is very important, because now they have the means to support the government and other parties in delivering educational outcomes.

As a think tank, IDEAS takes a libertarian approach. In essence, this means that individuals should be free to pursue their lives and make choices without intervention from government, as long as they do not harm other people in the process. So, in the practical sense, governments should have limited intervention when it comes to influencing the economy. They also uphold the belief that authority should be decentralised to prevent inflations of power. These exemplify the core values of libertarianism: Rule of law, free market, limited government, and individual liberty. IDEAS argues that these are consistent with the values of justice and liberty as propagated by the father of Malaysia—Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. “One of the many great things about Tunku Abdul Rahman was that he was a writer. He wrote for the Star for decades. What he says is often very consistenthe was a defender of free speech right to the end and believed that governments should not intervene in the personal lives of Malaysians.” The late Tunku was adamant in his belief for governments to allow individuals of a nation to live autonomously, and he was very consistent about that throughout his life.

Indubitably, the values of classical liberalism resonate closely with the Malaysian anthem. Our Rukun Negara preaches ideas of democracy, justice, and independence—these ideas form the Malaysian identity. If Tunku Abdul Rahman were alive today after the conceptualisation of classical liberalism, he would be a proponent to that belief. The late Tunku was also an economic liberal because he talked about free trade and warned against the dangers of protectionism. Protectionism restricts free trade—it aims to protect workers in certain industries, often at the cost of another. “Protectionism is akin to a drug, it might feel good now, but in the long run it may be destructive”. Surely, if we return to those beliefs that have fostered such economic growth in the past, Malaysia will benefit.

An institution removed from political aspirations is rare indeed, and that comes with its own set of challenges. “One interesting quirk about Malaysian political parties is that they are aligned with race or religion, as a result, you will get people who don’t like what we’re saying and people who really like what we’re saying.”  A recent issue that surfaced in Malaysia was the censorship of the Beauty and the Beast movie. It had a lot of Malaysians thrown into contention on social media. From that issue, you have polarizing receptions from Malaysians, some that agree with the ban and others who disregard its necessity. This is not much different from IDEAS and its ideology. Just like any other organization, IDEAS will have friends and enemies, people they choose to support or attack, and people now increasingly understand that as a group, IDEAS is ideological and has their own set of beliefs. That sort of understanding enables them to have a platform of different thoughts.

IDEAS and FLY share a common goal to combat illiteracy, although FLY is more focused on the areas of finance and economics while IDEAS is centred around literacy in general. Tunku Zain illuminated two problems that they have encountered when starting their own outfit.  The first of which is money. “It is much easier to raise money for orphanages, cancer research, or even sports initiatives for young children, but much more difficult to raise money for IDEAS as it is very difficult to show a donor what our impact on society is, and for a corporation, how this will look on their annual report.” Convincing people of the value of a think tank maintains to be an impasse. A second thing would be the idea of a think tank, conceptually. “In the earlier days, it was assumed that think tanks must be a part of a political party. Anyone who wants to do anything political would be concerned with the attainment of power.” What IDEAS tries to convey to the public is that they are not concerned with obtaining political positions, but rather to showcase alternative ways to improve society without joining party politics. Unfortunately, reaching for that level of understanding is a hurdle.

IDEAS mainly financed their operations through donations. The organisation is structured in a way that they have research activities, school projects, and learning centres for the underprivileged, which are mostly funded via corporate social responsibility. “We get our funds mostly from like-minded think tanks and [their] networks.” To better source for funding, they have recently launched a donor program so that individuals who believe in IDEAS’ mission can contribute in a more structured way.

One of the hallmarks of any organisation that works with research is to not produce editorial that “preaches to the choir”. Tunku Zain was very cautious of this when he started IDEAS. An outfit that says things that are at most derivative would face the struggle of impacting society. “We are blessed to be in the age of social media. It is very easy to push your ideas out, but you have to be wary to not blind yourself.” With that said, Tunku Zain always tries to not limit the scope of what they research, and they do this by travelling outside the Klang Valley. “One of our big educational projects was specifically about going to rural areas such as Perlis or Sabah. If we confine ourselves to the Klang Valley in itself, then it doesn’t depict a very accurate image of Malaysia as a whole.

Along with many of Tunku Zain’s accomplishments, he also maintained his role as a director for Allianz. Since 2012, Allianz has established a financial literacy program aimed at gradual literacy among children. The program is based on the myFinance Coach foundation and has reached ten thousand students throughout Malaysia. They have also partnered with the Federation of Malaysian Consumer Association (FOMCA) in support of its “Hari Pengguna” competition. “We try to increase access to finance as well as to our products and services. Looking at schools and adult financial literacy in general, we aim to create a multiplier effect through our initiatives.”

Tunku Zain subsequently shared with us his insights on the lack of focus on financial literacy in the Malaysian curriculum and how it troubles many young people when they go on to be adults. The average Malaysian is usually lost when it comes to sustaining a business, creating a stock portfolio or even something thought to be elementary such as filing taxes. “I remember when I first had to file my taxes. It requires quite a lot of self-education to go through and understand what the reliefs are, how you calculate them and even how to determine which bracket you belong to.” He expresses how this could be a practical issue for Malaysians when they enter adulthood and begin to earn the threshold amount. Things like this should be taught at the rudimentary level—in schools.  What needs to change in contemporary society is the presumption that to understand basic finance, you need a degree in accounting. “You have a lot of math whizzes, who value mathematics but not their application, but the reality is that going through your accounts, cash flows, or even balance sheets should be covered at a more basic level in school.”

Tunku Zain opines that we should start at the level of the curriculum and that including financial literacy as a part of our syllabus would benefit us greatly. He contends that the average school curriculum should include students engaging with the different financial tools, talking about innovation, and having the desire for entrepreneurship. “Many young people want to be entrepreneurs, but it’s vital to understand the financial ins and outs too, so that represents an opportunity to educate.” He does agree that education takes a long time to integrate into practice, so in the meantime, institutions like FOMCA can play an important role in consumer education. “Having a financially savvy society is in [the private sector’s] best interest. Financially participate customers are also sustainable ones, so the private sector has the incentive to invest in private sector programs.”

Recently, there was a contention between the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and IDEAS in which Firdaos Rosli of ISIS rebutted a claim made by IDEAS’ Ali Salman regarding the latter’s prediction of Malaysia’s trajectory in terms of the Wawasan 2020 GNP income goal. When asked about this, Tunku Zain expressed his delight. He interpreted this ordeal as think tanks deciding on what is best for Malaysia as a nation. “It’s natural that different researchers will use sources or datasets that they think are more reliable or accurate.  As long as their arguments are justified, I think it is up to readers to think and determine which is the better choice. I’m happy that IDEAS is contributing to the debate.” What Tunku Zain was trying to communicate is, in a time that offers so many different opinions, it is up to the people to decide what to support and what to defend. Differences in theories arise from different methodologies and this contributes to good dialogue.

Tunku Zain adopted a very Socratic method of envisioning what the ideal ASEAN would look like—learning through questions. In assessing the many different options or decisions that one should make as a citizen, whether domestically or in a global context, he proposes several questions to make that assessment: Do we want a political union? Do we want to surrender our sovereignty? Do we want a common currency when all the other countries may not be ready for that step? Or do we want some sort of parliament that forces legislation upon our country? “Enthusiastic young people would confer that we should be one super state like the European Union, but we should have the answers to the questions necessary to make that assessment. These are the questions that IDEAS has thought and will continue to think about.

One of the important duties of a Malaysian citizen is to vote for what they believe is to be the right candidate. Most Malaysians struggle with having to vote. Reasons include a lack of understanding of the entire system or the candidates themselves or it could also be because youths today are more disengaged in the future of their country and have lost interest in politics. As Malaysians, we are the stakeholders of what our future holds in this country. As such, we must assess each candidate critically. “As a citizen, you have to ask yourselves the question of what do you what your government to do? And what follows are subsequent questions and then you have got to answer those questions.” This statement basically encapsulates Tunku Zain’s views on the importance of critical thinking in a well-informed electorate. Another important fact noted by Tunku Zain was that apart from deriving the answers to these questions, we must contextualise these questions historically and to also consider what the role of government is philosophically. Further as a Malaysian, we should pose the question of how accurately the political choices today reflect the intentions of our founding fathers. Then the final question would be to ask the question of which candidate would best agree with our preferred answer.

Indeed, it is important to realise that when electing a candidate, we elect an individual, and not the party they represent. Tunku Zain voices the fact that we place too much emphasis on just voting for the party logo when candidates are separate from the party they come from. “We have to mature from the idea that a particular candidate is good or bad, both qualities exist in every candidate.” This statement describes the characteristic of a citizen with political maturity.

Moving on to a more international scene, the political climate that surfaced recently is unstable, to say the least. Trump’s presidency and the spectre of nationalist movements across Europe have shrouded the developed world in uncertainty. In the current climate—Trump’s presidency and Brexit—you start to realise the dangers of being insular, protectionist, and xenophobic. “A lot of people think that Brexit surfaced in much the same situation that birthed Trump’s presidency, but another interpretation would be that by leaving Europe, Britain can actually do more internationally. Although, for Trump, this is less so.” Tunku Zain feels that Trump pulling America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would leave road bumps for the future ahead. Malaysia specifically would lose a lot of market access, so it is pivotal for us to look for trade arrangements elsewhere, namely the RCEP and the ASEAN economic community. “There is a protectionist stain throughout society that wants to protect Malaysian industries and workers, which is emotionally easy to understand, but I think a case needs to be made that society benefits from greater access. By protecting certain workers within a sector, you might hurt everyone in the long run.” Tunku Zain mentioned another effect of Trump’s presidency is that politically, we are uncertain of what is going to happen in the South China Sea, nor in the White House, which is currently divided by a conflict of opinion. Recently, Steve Bannon was on record saying that there will be war with China and this spurs a lot of worry for many. These are risks that we must track very carefully. According to Tunku Zain, the closer this danger is to us geographically, the more cautious we must be, especially once we have belligerent leaders as neighbours.

We ended the interview by asking Tunku Zain for an afterword directed towards the young Malaysians of today. In ten seconds, he illuminated the responsibilities we should adopt in building a nation and more importantly the values we should ascribe to when we transition into the adult world. “The role of being a citizen is not just expecting the government to do things. It is also about asking questions, holding them into account, and getting involved in civil society. In our professional and social lives, we should use opportunities to engage with people from diverse areas of interest, and learn about our country through those relationships.”


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