KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 31 — Although initially opposed to Malaysia joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), local critics are not rejoicing over the United States’ withdrawal from the 12-nation free trade deal, cautioning instead that the trade pact may be revived or survive in other forms.
Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, president of anti-TPPA group Persatuan Teras Pendidikan dan Kebajikan Malaysia (Teras), indicated that it was still unclear if the TPPA deal is truly called off just because the US decided to pull out.
“For me I’m not celebrating anything yet, as government has already started process of ratifying, the government have to announce what has been amended and how far we have gone, because we may have done some changes, amending policies and laws even though TPPA dysfunction.
“Now we only heard from America that it is withdrawing, but the other 11 partners they are just saying without US, it’s not workable. Have they actually dissolved it, have they actually come out with official statement of status of TPPA?” he said, questioning if the deal would dissolve on its own or if steps would have to be taken to officially dismantle it.
Noting that the agreements with the US allegedly tend to be biased towards the influential economic superpowers’ interests, he said Teras is urging the Malaysian government to stop any amendment of policies and laws in the country’s bid to bring them in line with the TPPA and to restore them to the pre-TPPA position.
Mohd Azmi also said Malaysia still has to remain on guard, predicting that the US would most likely seek out a new free trade deal with Malaysia, due to the latter’s alleged high dependence on US trade and strategic location as a possible entry point into the region.
Noting that Malaysians had successfully protested against a US-Malaysia free-trade agreement in the past, Mohd Azmi highlighted the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy and worried that the US may again approach Malaysia with the same framework to push for the opening up of local markets.
He also shared his worry that there would again be a “non-democratic” negotiation process shutting out Malaysians despite a US trade deal’s potential impact on issues such as national interests, economic interests and Bumiputera interests.
“That’s my worry, because all these while it has never been in the open, it’s always done in secrecy, they won’t divulge any info to the public under the pretext that a deal must be done with partners with no disclosure,” he said, referring to the TPPA experience.
Five ways for TPPA to live on
The Bantah TPPA coalition’s co-founder Anas Alam Faizli said he welcomed the US withdrawal from the TPPA, but cautioned that there are over five ways in which the free trade deal could “still be alive and prove costly to Malaysia”.
He said the remaining 11 countries could proceed with the TPPA which would mean the “same cost, less benefits” while US firms benefit from the agreement’s clauses, saying that a new free trade deal between Malaysia and US was also another possibility.
He said the TPPA could also live on if its clauses were emulated by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that is still undergoing negotiations, or if TPPA clauses are used in new trade deals between Malaysia and TPPA countries that are currently not the former’s free trade partners. These would be Canada, Mexico, Peru and the US.
“If Malaysia wants to pursue FTA, must start from a fresh page that suit the countries involved and not by using FTA clauses,” he said, referring to free trade agreements by its acronym.
The RCEP is a proposed free trade deal that excludes the TPP’s key driver, the US, but involves Asean’s 10 member nations and the six countries which the regional body already has trade deals with: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
There is also the possibility of Malaysia forging ahead with TPPA clauses in the form of local laws despite the TPPA deal being cancelled, he said, adding that this will prove costly to Malaysia in issues related to copyrights, medicine, investor-state dispute settlement.
Better terms and public feedback
Mohamad Raimi Abdul Rahim, president of anti-TPPA group Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), said the group had from the beginning believed that the free trade deal would not materialise as it was allegedly faulty and the US president lacked support from the US Senate for it.
“I think we have wasted a lot of time negotiating the agreement...getting nothing despite putting in a lot of effort and time including parliamentarians and drafters trying to conclude the agreement, whereas it’s not in the beginning a viable TPPA,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
Believing that Abim had won its cause, Mohamad Raimi said the cancellation of the TPPA is helpful to and a “good thing” for Malaysia, arguing that the country will not lose out but will instead gain more by seeking trade deals with better terms with other trade partners.
“We hope this can be a lesson for the government to include the people from the beginning in any multilateral trade negotiations if you don’t want to experience the same thing, the people kept in the dark, eventually protest is there and not sufficient time for proper discussion for future of country in a matter that is as important as this,” he said, adding that Abim’s protest was due to Putrajaya’s exclusion of the public and other stakeholders from the discussions.
Mohamad Raimi stressed that Abim is not against free trade agreements, adding that the group merely wants transparency in both the terms negotiated and the trade talks, as well as favourable terms for Malaysia.
“Any future discussion on trade, multilateral trade agreements can proceed, but on a more transparent nature and better terms that protect our sovereignty and enable our trade. We believe the previous terms were not on our side...we are not against any trade but it must be just and giving good return to the country,” he said.
Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla, a lawyer representing the three groups of Abim, Teras and Unggas in their anti-TPPA lawsuit, said he had last week written to the Attorney-General’s office to enquire whether it can confirm on behalf of the Malaysian government that the TPPA is a “no-go”.
“As far as we are concerned, if the Malaysian government confirms — but it’s obvious that TPPA is already a dead agreement — then we will withdraw it from court because it becomes academic in nature.
“More importantly, it becomes a moral victory for those fighting against TPPA because TPPA has become dead on its own,” he said.
The three groups had in November 2015 filed a lawsuit against the prime minister, the International Trade and Industry Ministry and the Malaysian government and sought a court order to stop the government from signing the TPPA, but had failed in January 2016 to obtain leave for hearing. Their application for leave to appeal has since reached the Federal Court.
Parliament had last January given its nod for the TPPA and committed to ratify it by 2018, while the 12 nations had signed the TPPA last February 4 after finally concluding negotiations on October 5, 2015.
The 12 nations are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, Vietnam and Malaysia.
US president Donald Trump had last week however signed an executive order to formally remove the US from the TPPA, which his predecessor Barack Obama had pushed for.