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'Why' and 'how' of think-tanks

Updated On: May 10, 2010
May 8, 2010, Straits Times STForum
(This is a response to this article.) 
I READ Mr Barry Desker's comment with interest ('So what exactly is a think-tank?'; Wednesday). This is especially because the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, which he heads, was recently ranked the third best think-tank in Asia and first in Singapore.
But while Mr Desker focuses on 'what', I would like to add to the discussion by briefly looking at 'why' and 'how'.
Why a think-tank? No government, no matter how good, has a monopoly on wisdom and the best thinking. This is especially so as issues become more complex and societies more diverse. Accordingly, think-tanks flourish where diversity of thinking is valued, and rational decision-making is valued, rather than only political power. Implicitly the government that best utilises think-tanks acknowledges that good ideas can be better and be improved by some outside government.
How do think-tanks work best? There are many factors, but a key issue for the think-tanks themselves is that they should not primarily see themselves as 'contractors' who are outsourced to implement government work. Even if this is a major source of funding, the think-tank needs to justify an envelope of independence to work best.
Independence is a critical factor for many of the leading US think-tanks, even if they have good ties with policymakers.
Part of the reason that think-tanks can do well is because of a 'revolving door' which Mr Desker mentions by which policymakers go back and forth between think-tanks and political office. But there is also a need to mention people who have made it a mission to develop their think-tank as an institution, and do not see this as just another short-term assignment at government behest.
In Jakarta this week, I attended the wake for Dr Hadi Soesastro, former executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Indonesia and one of the most respected economists in the region.
Pak Hadi spent all his working life at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, even though he served in various advisory boards for the government, and worked tirelessly to build up that institution. Mr Desker himself has set his own example at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies for almost a decade.
It is telling that the Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies were the two best-ranked think-tanks in South-east Asia in a recent poll.
Simon Tay 
Singapore Institute of International Affairs

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