The rise of Asia's think-tanks

Asia's research footprint is growing. China recently pledged support for 100 new think-tanks to expand ministerial analytical capacity. India's think-tanks are poised to benefit from a growing base of knowledge workers.

In April, China and Pakistan announced a joint think-tank focusing on economic growth. China has also entered into a "think-tank alliance" with the European Union to support research about Eurasian economic development.

Despite this progress, the quality and influence of think-tanks is not something that can be directly imposed, but must grow organically from conditions that enable independent scholarship.

Concerning raw numbers of think-tanks, the top rankings in The University of Pennsylvania's 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index are predictably dominated by size - the United States, China, Britain, Germany and India.

This is not a perfect correlation, however. Singapore's ratio of think-tanks to population is nearly five times that of the US.

To further measure think-tank prowess, the number of think-tanks can be divided by GDP (then multiplied by 10,000 to yield readable statistics), to measure which country "does more" with its resources.

By this measure (see chart), Argentina has the highest capacity among the 10 countries with the most think-tanks, followed by the US, Britain and India.

China and Japan are at the bottom of the top 10, and Singapore - outside the top 10 - has only 13 per cent of Argentina's capacity. Further, Singapore's six listed think-tanks equal the number in South Carolina and West Virginia, American states with far smaller populations and modest research reputations.

Singapore's surprisingly low position may be a result of two factors.

First, public and private resources have been committed largely to for-profit enterprises, reflecting the legacy of a fiercely developmental orientation.

Second, Singapore is decades beyond basic development challenges and needs little policy advice on issues such as poverty, health, and urbanisation (popular topics for think-tanks).

Singapore's "thought" leadership in international development has evolved only recently. Still, the country provides robust financial support for higher education, and a host of new think-tanks affiliated with the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and other institutions is certain to boost capacity and elevate its image in the international research community.

Comparing think-tanks across Singapore, China and India, it is notable that China far outpaces India in energy and resource policy think-tanks, and marginally in foreign policy and international development.

By contrast, India outpaces China in environment think-tanks. Of think-tanks with the greatest impact on policy, India, Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore each has only one (of 70), and Malaysia, two. By contrast, North America and Europe have 42. Singapore is an outlier due to its small population.

It is important also to consider think-tank reputations. Concerns persist about the quality and impact of think-tank research in Hong Kong and China. According to a recent commentary by Mr Fan Bi, deputy director of the State Council's General Research Office, one problem is imbalanced capacity - private think-tanks are outnumbered and out-resourced by government-affiliated ones.

Further, think-tanks are aligned with national developmental priorities; economics institutes are numerous and influential, while those focusing on international politics and strategy are less prominent.

Some think-tanks target policymakers exclusively and actively avoid publicising findings, as is the case of Hong Kong's One Country Two Systems Research Institute.

Think-tank challenges run even deeper than resources and strategies. According to Mr Fan, "to become a real mechanism that influences policymaking, (China's think-tanks) will need to provide answers to big societal problems, and the solutions must be independent, professional, enforceable and constructive".

Mr Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, argues in a recent op-ed article that "creating a noise in society" is "very crucial" for think-tanks.

Both comments speak to an interpretation of the role of think-tanks that goes beyond mere policy analysis - the importance of human capital and influence of evolving social values are rising.

India is one example. A recent Times of India op-ed article argues that "intelligent, highly qualified people (will) leave their jobs and try to make a real difference to the world they live in".

Such a trend bodes well for think-tank capacity in India, a country where sound policy advice is needed to address a host of problems, including pollution, public health and urban sanitation.

Research industry leaders such as Hong Kong Policy Research Institute's Mr Fung believe that think-tanks can play an important role informing policy to maintain global competitiveness.

China and India have the opportunity to use think-tanks, not only to supply policymakers with useful analysis, but also to build each country's international influence through research that is meaningful and broadly applicable.

  • Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a doctoral candidate at the school.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline The rise of Asia's think-tanks. Subscribe