Whenever people think of neoliberalism, their thoughts immediately conjure up the image of President Bush and his cronies wrecking havoc in the middle east in the pursuit of liberty and oil. Never would I have ever thought of being in a conference where I was surrounded by these people during my studies in the U.K. More specifically, I attended a Centre for Policy Studies conference titled “Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty 2014” in the city of London. Centre for Policy Studies is an independent right-wing think tank whose founding members include the late and illustrious Margaret Thatcher, a neoliberal conservative figurehead.

While President Bush himself wasn’t present in the event, several neoliberal conservative hawks and far-right politicians were. The likes of former Australian Prime Minister Sir John Howard, the magnate Lord Satchii, and former General David Patreaus were there. Nancy Reagan, the wife of Ronald Reagan, was originally supposed to come, but due to health issues, she had to turn down the invitation.

Leading academics such as Professors Niall Ferguson, Richard Epstein, Deepak Lal, Deirdre McCloskey and Luigi Zingales were present too. Other speakers include Charles Moore (the official biographer of Lady Thatcher), Michael Gove, Roger Scruton, Radek Sikorski, and Dr Art Laffer (the man known to have coined the Laffer Curve). Britain’s only living Nobel Prize winner for Literature, V S Naipaul, opened the Conference. More than 900 guests were present in the event which coincide with the 40th anniversary of Lady Thatcher’s founding of the Centre for Policy Studies.

For the whole day, I got the chance to hear out their ideas, debates and presentations on various issues concerning the changing global environment. To be honest, I was surprised to find them to be quite open and civilised in their deliberation of various policies and topics. It opened my eyes for the first time how these high-level open forums work. Coming from Brunei where there are lots of restrictions on free speech, my 22-year-old self were blown away of how freely they would talk on sensitive issues. I thought to myself, perhaps this is why the West is so advanced. They are able to openly debate anything and everything in a civilised manner. 

Above all, the event which centred around the late Margaret Thatcher’s legacy has also given people the chance to pay homage to her market-centric economic reforms. The leaders in the event also took the opportunity to press upon the UK government on much-needed changes needed to turn the economy around. One has to remember that it was several years after the 2008 market crash, and certainly, it would not be a surprise if the message delivered in the conference was directed at David Cameron’s Conservative government. Lord Saatchi, the chair of the think tank, got so impassioned for the free-market that he threw a leaflet from his podium during his speech to make his point. (Image below, a selfie of me with Lord Saatchi – yes, I looked different then!)

Several Conservative party leaders were present in the conference. Two notable figures present were the Secretary of Education MP Mike Gove and MEP Dan Hannan – both proponents of Brexit.

The conservative party has, of course, been known the be pro-market. Certainly, market reforms and policies have produced results. In 2015, the UK government created over 700,000 jobs, which is more than the jobs created by the entire European Union combined. The impetuous to build on the market reforms would not have been made possible too had it not for the earlier foundation laid out in the 80s under her greatest champion, the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

I, for one, am not ashamed to confess my admiration for the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher and her market reform policies. Apart from being Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, she was hugely instrumental in turning the tide of socialism that has been holding back her country from progress. Here’s another interesting video of her.

I do not know why but I have that conservative tinge in me. For me, being a conservative is a matter of taking self-responsibility of one’s destiny in an environment where the government empowers you with the sufficient and right tools to become ultimately independent from the state. I also believe in the need to make government smaller so that it does not interfere with individual liberty. Above all, I believe in the need to propagate the values of meritocracy and the equality of opportunity for all in the national sphere, be it in politics, business, and more.

Contrasting this conservative viewpoint is the leftist ideology, which to me feels more and more regressive as time went by, especially amidst the vitriol and dogmatic ideas they project onto American and British politics in this Trumpian and Corbynite era. To know more why I dislike the left you can see from this interview of former KGB agent Yuri Bezmenov. I highly recommend everyone to watch it. In the video, he explains the subterfuge tactics used by the KGB (or any other foreign agents) to fulfill their main purpose, which is to weaken the dynamism, individualism of a country’s citizens and intellectuals.

Nevertheless, I do subscribe and do support several left-leaning economic, cultural and social policies. Several policies that I am in favour of include the introduction of the minimum wage, the promotion of  inclusive societies, free or affordable healthcare (which Brunei has no problem with), the fight for stateless people to get their citizenship issue sorted out, being pro-immigration, to uphold the rights of minorities, and much more. 

Furthermore, public intellectuals such as Neil Ferguson, a journalist whom I admire, also spoke in the event. He advocated the need for us in the audience to become the champions and vanguard of the free-market doctrine and to continue to press on changes in the world we are living in today. He also recounted the special relationship between the UK and US forged by the former leaders, President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, in turning their respective economies around through market economics.

I first encountered Neil on the web through his TEDx speech (above, it is worth a watch!). There he presented the underlying reasons as to why the West is far superior than the rest of the world (including the Islamic world) between the 18th to the 20th century. One of his answers is how the West produces laws and legisation based on reason. Watching that I subsequently purchased and read Neil’s books, the Ascent of Money and Empire: How Britain made the Modern World. These are bloody good reads; I’m still saving up money to purchase his latest book The Square and the Tower. If you are keen in sponsoring me the book then I’d be most happy to receive it.

The people present in the event were quite open and friendly. I learned a lot and the leaders who were present were kind enough to share their thoughts with me. Richard Epstein, a prominent American legal scholar whose rhetorical ability awed me shared details on how a young person such as myself can succeed in pushing market-based reforms in my community.

I even got the chance to meet the former President of the Mont Perelin society, Deepak Lal. The Mont Perelin society is a prestigious society whcih essentially advocates freedom of expression, free market economic policies, the political values of an open society – values which I fully subscibe to. It was created by the famed and illustrious late Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Frederick Hayek whose work the Intellectuals and Socialism has a huge impact in the way how I think about the economy and society.

Above all, I found the former American General David Patreaus to have given me the strongest impression on the event. He was, of course, no longer a general at that time and acted only in his capacity as a private consultant. He was invited to a panel where he shared his thoughts and ideas regarding economic policy-making and foreign policy. When an audience member asked him about Iraq, there was a sudden change in his tone.

He then became more assertive and commanding, eloquently putting forth his arguments and points across. It left the room electrified. I was like, wow, this is a general alright! His involvement in the Iraqi war made him a highly respected figure in the U.S. I invite everyone to watch David Rubenstein interview with him below.

Boy or boy, I took lots of selfies with these leaders too. Hey, what can I do? I was young. Call me Sakai too, but when my little brothers saw my pics with these leaders, they were a little bit proud of me – I hope they get inspired. Another selfie, this time, with John Howard, former Australian Prime Minister. He is notable for implementing the gun-control policy in Australia.

Lessons I learned from the process: It was the highest level conference I have ever attended up to that point. It taught me so much of the need to have open debate and conversations regarding various issues affecting the thing around us. In some developing societies, we rarely have these open forums, probably caused by the fear of being shut down or being raided. The damage it does to a young society when these sorts of stuff happen is that you’ll end up creating intellectual atrophy, a dangerous situation that will leave the society open and ripe for any regressive ideologies to hurt the country. These situations must be avoided at all cost.

The next lesson I learned was the idea that you can make an impact on policies and reforms by advocating them in these public spaces, conferences or even the media. The changes may not necessarily come overnight, but continuous advocacy with properly grounded evidence-based ideas will increase the odds of you affecting society, in one way or another. That is why I kept on writing on this website and other media outlets, especially in areas where I am most passionate about: quality education, inclusive development and promoting English in Brunei. Different topics, same strategies.

Finally, a safe environment where you can have an open and civilised debate are the signs of a mature society. When I attended the conference, I had this funny impression that these neoliberals are going to shout at each other, to crazily demand everyone to conform to their viewpoints, and to enforce others to submit to their ideas without question. It was far from it, as I’ve mentioned in this article – they were amicable and civilised.

Furthermore, the idea that providing healthy critic to an established order would be heresy should be done away with – In the conference, Charles Moore openly criticised UK’s foreign policy on Iraq. If the West can have these kinds of open debates, why can’t some developing nations have it too?

Having a closed-off environment where public debates are not allowed cripples young thinkers and idealists on how they can shape society. Rather than punishing them, the state should empower them. When circles mentioned whether have “I got into trouble or not” with the things I wrote, I’d say to them look: I’ve been awarded two scholarships to pursue my studies in the UK. I even completed my masters from LSE, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.  As a young intellectual (if that is the proper way to brand me) then, of course, I’ll make the most of what I learn so that I can bring whatever ideas I learned back home.

Was it not Sultan Bolkiah the 5th’s advise for the Bruneian people to learn ideas from abroad and bring them back to develop the polity forward? I do not blame some of them for having a negative preconceived notion about public intellectuals or aspiring public intellectuals whenever they meet us. Still, I wish they should celebrate people who advocate positive and constructive change. It’s easy to judge from the sidelines; it’s vastly different when you’re in the actual ring battling for your ideas and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. To know more about themes regarding free speech and criticism, I recommend you to read Criticism and Continuity in Brunei by PossiblyZebra. It’s an amazing piece!

But I digress. Overall, to me, it was a very fun and eye-opening conference. It taught me a lot of lessons on how these public events can shape the conversations on foreign policy and economics forward, among many other things. For those Bruneians in the UK or the US reading this, I highly recommend you to explore new intellectual vistas by attending these high-level conferences and events. Do not get too comfortable with the Bruneian “bubble” there. Make the most of your time by getting yourself out there to learn!

Before I end this article, I invite you to watch this video by the godfather of free market economics himself, Milton Friedman:

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