Photo Essay

The Think Tank Turns Twenty

Penang Institute, which publishes Penang Monthly, turns 20 this year. Established in 1997 as the Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI), the public think tank serves both the state and the public in turning Penang into an intellectual hub, and spurring bold thinking in the key areas of economics, socio-politics and sustainable development. For the past two decades, it has been working creatively to “Make Ideas Work”, as befits its tagline. With the new year and a new building, we take a look at the people within.


Penang Monthly's inaugural issue in 2009. The magazine began life as Penang Economic Monthly before it was renamed to better reflect the breadth of the issues we discuss and the broad interests of our readers.

Zairil Khir Johari says... “Penang Institute has come a long way in the last five years. From a relatively unknown think tank, we transformed into an important thought leader on various intellectual discourse. From hosting heads of state and government to Nobel Prize winners and internationally acclaimed academics, Penang Institute has certainly made its mark felt on the national stage, if not regionally. “Our first international conference was organised in 2012, featuring distinguished speakers from seven different countries. The entire event, which saw the participation of over 200 people, was organised in 21 days – a feat that I continue to recall with great pride. We never looked back since and are now regularly involved in organising major international events. I am proud to have been part of this transformative process during my service as CEO from 2012 and as Executive Director from 2014. Throughout this journey, I am even prouder to have been supported by a stellar cast of colleagues, all of whom played an important collective role in bringing the Institute forward.”.

Approaching his 20th anniversary at the institute, Dr Toh Kin Woon is one of the founders directly responsible for setting up the institute in 1997, when it was known as the Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI). Toh, a veteran academic and state executive councillor at the time and currently senior research fellow, said it was set up with support from the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) and scholars to assist the state government’s decision-making process based on informed planning. “Based on my experience being in the government for so long, government departments are immersed in administrative work and execution, and Penang Institute fills that void in research and planning. We need to have a good relationship and coordination with the state informing us what they need, so we can strategise to meet those needs. We should also work closely with civil society bodies and engage in consultation. We have come a long way now, with better support and funding, and being more structurally organised, and we now have greater capacities for research and conferences,” says Toh.

Dealing with all things administrative and human resource-related, Maggie Loo and Quah Thoon Tze ensure all the researchers are kept happy and productive (i.e. paid on time).

The Urban Studies department is dedicated to sustainable development, urban regeneration, housing and transport issues. Working closely with various state agencies, the department provides a proactive agenda to make Penang more liveable, green and walkable. Among their projects are developing the Penang Green Agenda, a holistic sustainable development strategy; and organising Penang Urbanites (unofficial Facebook page at, a public engagement platform which includes an informal chat series, discussions
and workshops. The section comprises (left to right) Christina Oon, Sri Vaitheki Ramasamy, Evelyn Teh and Tan Lii Inn.

The Economic Studies department is mostly utilised by the state government to provide various economic indicators and outlooks. Through their reports and statistics, they provide the necessary information for the state and public. Among their projects are the biannual Penang Economic Indicators, Penang Quarterly Statistics, the Penang Economic Report and the Penang Skilled Workforce Study. They also monitor the German Dual Vocational Training (GDVT) programme. The section is currently led by Tim-Niklas Schoepp (also the COO of Penang Institute), Dr Negin Vaghefi (left) and Ong Wooi Leng (right).

The new home of Penang Institute, located right beside the old building on 10, Jalan Brown. The soft launch on June 28 this year was officiated by the chief minister, also the chairman of the think tank. The new building enables the institute to exert greater capacities such as event and conference hosting, as well as housing the expanding staff and resources. The conference hall is available for rent to the public.

The dynamic duo making up the Nusantara Studies department consists of Dr Mustafa Kamal Anuar (right) and Mohd Izzuddin Ramli (left). Besides a fascinating mix of events, ranging from Maqasid Shariah to the P. Ramlee Festival, they are also conducting a preliminary study of Malay-Muslim religious, intellectual and business leaders in past and contemporary Penang, as well as a research project on the translation activities of Penang.

The library hosts over 6,000 books, official government records, statistics and reports. Committed and cheerful librarians, Farah (left), Annete (right) and Flora always ensure the researchers get the information and archives they need. An upcoming plan for the library is to open it to members of the public once it is ready to welcome visitors. There’s still much to be done due to the move to our new building.

The History department specialises in Penang history and heritage. Whether it’s their own proactive initiatives or requests from the state government and various associations, they can almost always be seen reading and documenting historical records and some primary sources. Their latest project includes documenting the Straits Chinese British
Association and compiling historical data such as minutes of meetings, reports and old newspapers. The department is led by Dr Wong Yee Tuan (right), with researchers Koay Su Lyn (middle) and Pan Yi Chieh (left).

The executives, Ong Siou Woon (middle), Lee Seng Hwai (left) and Lennie Khor (right), ensure the smooth operations of the institute, with Nur Fitriah as the designer. They set up events and work round the clock to meet the expectations of the board of directors, top management, section heads and researchers. Yup, everyone.

Penang Institute in KL (PI KL) has released a number of reports on national issues including the type of jobs that have been created under the Economic Transformation Program (ETP), the introduction of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) in the national curriculum and the sustainability of the PTPTN loan scheme. In addition, PI in KL has moved to a new co-working space at the APW campus in Bangsar, which will enhance the ability to share ideas and absorb new ideas from other like-minded individuals and groups in KL. Led by Dr Ong Kian Ming (far left) as the general manager, PI KL comprises Dr Lim Chee Han (second from left), Esther Sinirisan Chong Shiaw Yee (third from left) and Lim Su Lin (far right).

The Political and Social Analysis department has three focus: political institutions, identity and social inclusion, and political economy. Their energies for the past few months have been invested in studying the redelineation exercise proposed by the Election Commission and engaging stakeholders to formulate a plan of action. With Dr Toh Kin Woon as advisor, the department comprises section head Dr Wong Chin Huat (far right), Nidhal Rawa (far left) Yeong Pey Jung (second from left) and Ooi Kok Hin (foreground). They have also recently set up an unofficial website and Facebook page,, where they livestream their events.

Ooi Kok Hin is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at
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