Think tanks are neither to tarnish nor burnish

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By TK Chua

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is under a lot of pressure lately. However, his advice to Penang Institute, the think tank funded by the State Government, not to tarnish but burnish the image of the State Government, needs some comments.

I think the purpose of a think tank is neither to tarnish nor burnish the image of a government. Both would be wrong.

A think tank should be allowed to research and tell the truth of their observations on current events and issues confronting the state and the country. So long as motives and intentions are right, the think tank should be allowed to carry out its work uninterrupted.

To tarnish would signify deliberate intention to belittle or damage the reputation of someone. On the contrary, to burnish is to polish or perk up the reputation of someone. Both would suggest “intervention” in efforts to tell the truth.

We set up a think tank because we want to hear the truth honestly conveyed. Otherwise we are no different from emperors of the past who only wanted to hear pleasing news and stories.

If we tell the think tank not to tarnish but burnish, we are effectively telling them to sacrifice the honest truth. It is not necessary to set up a think tank if we only want to hear nice stories. Surrounding ourselves with “polishers” will suffice.

I do agree that sometimes the truth can hurt and there is a need to manage it judiciously. Instead of saying publicly, the think tank should be allowed to brief the top leadership in the state of the true situation prevailing in either the state or the country.

When state leaders become insular, arrogant, abrasive and overtly gung-ho and unreasonable, who would be most suited to provide the best feedback if not the think tank the State Government has funded to provide such a service?

I have heard enough of inauguration speeches of presidents and prime ministers when they first come to power. Inevitably, they promise an inclusive government willing to listen from near and far. However, usually after a while they will no longer listen. In fact, they will become intolerant of honest views.

I think all leaders need honest feedback of themselves, if not in public, it must be told in private right to their faces. This is the only reality check they must subject themselves to. The late Lee Kuan Yew was known for his dominant and strong personality. But I read that he had never failed to seek feedback from pertinent people – successful entrepreneurs and business people, researchers and trade union leaders – when assessing a situation or making policy decisions.

So over to you, Lim Guan Eng.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

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