Penang Institute as NGO: Growing Beyond Research and Advocacy

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

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THE THEME FOR June 2024 is non-government organisations—NGOs. This allows for the publisher of this monthly, i.e. Penang Institute itself, to do some soul-searching and to locate itself within the NGO world in Penang, and even Malaysia, in terms of its functions and aspirations.

Penang Institute is known in most circles as the Penang state government’s think tank. But since 2008, with the federal opposition taking power in the state, Penang has been seen as the place where people-centred policies would be implemented. The people of Penang would lead again in public policy, economic innovation and intellectual honesty.

In that sense, Penang Institute conscientiously transformed itself over the last 15 years to facilitate the achieving of reformist ideals wished for by voters since 2008. Proclaiming the dawn of a “Penang Renaissance”, the think tank decided in 2009 to establish a monthly magazine to be the Voice of Penang, and to be a platform for stories about Penang to be told.

The Penang Monthly was thus founded, and celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

A Renaissance

In 2011, it was also decided that the think tank’s name since its founding in 1997—Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI)—should be changed to “Penang Institute”. This was to ease its branding as a regionally and internationally relevant think tank. The timely rise of social media and other information technologies was a godsend in that sense as well.

What should be observed is that Penang Institute now locates itself between being a much-needed journalistic outlet as well as being a research institute and think tank. Its job is now to make ideas work and to raise issues competently.

A new building was soon added to accommodate the revamped organisation.

Now expressive of journalistic obligations, academic ideals and policymaking fervour, the Institute aims to be an inspirational model for how think tanks in Malaysia could function effectively. In effect, Penang Institute has thus become a unique type of NGO. Besides functioning as the think tank for the Penang state government—and this is best noted in the blueprints and vision statements it develops for the state, and in the stream of research reports (such as ISSUES) that it regularly publishes—it contributes vehemently to Malaysian journalism through Penang Monthly (printed and online), through its many podcasts highlighting ideas and personalities, and through its other online series such as Suara Nadi (in Malay).

The Institute’s many book launches and seminars are also well-appreciated for public discussions, not to mention the occasional roundtable held under its FLAG (Forum for Leadership and Governance) programme, which includes Policy Development Forum (PDF) roundtables with representatives of agencies and decision-makers from the private sector, and the Bel Retiro Roundtables initiated last year under the auspices of the Governor of Penang.

In 2022, the Institute worked on something called the Strategy for Economic Ecosystems Development (Penang SEED). The main rationale presented to the Executive Council through that publication was for the State to consider the developing of ecosystems when formulating policies for any economic sector. The idea is that this wider view is necessarily longer term in perspective and also more inclusive of stakeholders in any given sector.

In fact, Penang Institute should today be rightly seen as an ambitious NGO that has been pushing the conceptual boundaries for what is possible for NGOs and think tanks. The impact that comes by virtue of being a crisscross bridge between state actors, private sectors, academe, NGOs and society at large, we believe, is potentially enormous.

Being well-placed organically in the local context also leads to strong connections spontaneously growing with international players, be these research institutes in the region or the world, or international organisations and also embassies based in Malaysia. Furthermore, given that the gap between the Malaysian federal government and the Penang state government is at its smallest in decades, Penang Institute, with its ties to players at the local, federal and international levels, is potentially able to exert much greater impact on matters of interest to Penang in the near future.

On a more personal level, working deeply within the local ecosystem for policymaking, discourse-generation and social communication allows the Institute to gain better understanding—and grow more empathy—for players in all the aforementioned sectors. This, in fact, is what allows an NGO like Penang Institute to put to good use what it considers its greatest asset—its ability to synergise, inspire and organise.

In summary, Penang Institute makes things happen by being thoughtful, humble and inclusive. Needless to say, it is where it is today, thanks to the activism and aspirations of those who went before—past leaders and staff, and all its present supporters.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: