Unsung heroes at TPPA talks

MALAYSIA - With a fresh mandate given by the Cabinet, Malaysian negotiators are going for another round of TPPA talks in Brunei this week. What they also need is the support from the public after facing harsh criticism from many quarters.

Immediately after a special Cabinet meeting on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPPA) last Thursday, Inter­national Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed and his senior officials rushed to another meeting in Putrajaya for another TPPA session with academicians and think tanks.

It was to inform and update the group on the latest in the plurilateral negotiations involving Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam.

The partnership will create a huge duty free market of 800 million people with a combined GDP of US$27.5 trillion (S$35 trillion).

Much energy and time have been spent by Mustapa and his officers over the last few months on the proposed free trade agreement - meeting groups, attending public forums and even holding an open day - in an unprecedented move to hear the public out on their concerns on the TPPA.

Kudos must be given to Miti for engaging the various stakeholders on the TPPA. On hindsight, however, such engagements should have been done much earlier before the avalanche of criticisms against the TPPA from various quarters.

Critics have been harsh and vocal. Many demanded transparency, alleging the negotiations were being held in secrecy.

Some were bold to ask for negotiations to be suspended as they fear the price of medicine will skyrocket while others thought local SMEs, especially bumiputra, will lose out to bigger companies, especially from the United States.

Some blogs have even named and blamed Miti officers for what they perceived as their failure to fight for Malaysia's interests.

After a few short months, it seems that in the minds of the public the TPPA is Miti and Miti is just for negotiating the TPPA.

In 2010, the Cabinet mandated Miti to coordinate Malaysia's participation in the negotiations. It acts as the chief negotiator while other ministries and agencies lead the working groups for areas under their responsibility.

Ministries and agencies involved are Health, Finance, Communications and Multimedia, Domestic Trade, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment, Human Resources and the Attorney-General's Chambers.

In recent months, as criticisms gathered steam, Miti received the brunt of the objections while the other ministries seemed content to be in the backseat.

Some ministries, such as Health, are not pulling their weight to contain public outcry.

Health Minister Datuk S. Subramaniam was quoted by an online news portal as saying that his ministry was not a party to the TPPA negotiations.

That news, which was uploaded on the same day the special Cabinet meeting was held, had some quarters in Miti riled up.

"I wonder if the officers in his ministry brief their superiors on what's going on when they come back from these negotiations," said an officer.

Another was more candid: "This is a team effort. Miti is sticking its neck out there.

"I hope the others can hold their own pu­blic sessions and give updates on the sectors they are negotiating, as many of the issues raised by the NGOs mainly concern them," the officer said.

Their remarks are very telling. Fatigue is setting in and morale is low among the negotiators.

They feel that the public is not behind them when they are told that they are not good at their job. To top it all, some blogs have tried to paint the picture that the negotiators are on the take.

While the negotiators are open to constructive criticism, no one should doubt their loyalty to the country.

They are only doing their job as negotiators because that was the mandate given to them by the Government.

In fact, most people are unaware that they have in the last two years engaged the various stakeholders and regularly updated the Prime Minister and Cabinet on the TPPA.

The special Cabinet meeting last week was the first dedicated session for the TPPA. All negotiators briefed the ministers, who in turned sought clarification and raised valid issues.

It is understood that Khazanah managing director Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, who was invited to the meeting, raised his concerns on the contentious issue of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as there has been speculation the TPPA will prevent or hinder the socially useful functions of SOEs.

This would restrict the Government's abi­lity to govern or manage government-linked companies, or provide incentives and preferences.

However, the Cabinet had already decided, earlier on, that Malaysia rejects most elements of the current proposal. The negotiators for SOEs are already working with like-minded countries participating in the TPPA to come up with an alternative text.

The Government has directed the negotiators to continue ensuring that Malaysia's sovereignty is defended in the course of the negotiations.

Malaysia should also not be bound by any fixed timeline as many issues are still unresolved.

The next round of negotiations will take place this week in Brunei.

A fresh mandate has been be given by the Cabinet for the negotiators to do their job.

What the negotiators sorely need is the support of Malaysians that they are doing the right thing for the country.

And with many issues still on the negotia­ting table, there's still a long way to go before the TPPA can be wrapped up.

The writer can be reached at merga@thestar.com.my.