Thousands of Malaysians turned out yesterday (Saturday) to protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is to be debated in the Malaysian parliament next week, and is scheduled to be signed off by all member countries in New Zealand on February 4.
In October last year, 12 Pacific Rim nations – the United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam – reached an agreement to create the world’s largest free-trade zone. Negotations were conducted behind closed doors.
The TPP has been condemned worldwide, however. Critics say it is a geopolitical tool being used by the US in its trade battle with China.
Speakers at yesterday’s rally in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, were ardent in their condemnation of the agreement, which is also known as the TPPA. They pointed to the need to protect Malaysian sovereignty and the country’s economic future and demanded that the government reject the accord.
The demonstrators were denied entry to the famous Merdeka Square in the city centre, which was cordoned off and guarded by police, so marched on to hold their rally on the nearby Padang Merbok sports field.
Amir Abdul Hadi from the human rights NGO Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Voice of the People, or SUARAM) was arrested under Section 105 of the Criminal Procedure Code when leaving the rally, allegedly “to prevent a seizable offence”. Police alleged that he spoke during the protest, but he was not one of the speakers, and was, in fact, a member of SUARAM’s urgent arrest team.
He was brought to the Dang Wangi police station for questioning and was subjected to a urine test, then was released after about two hours.
Turnout at yesterday’s rally was estimated to be more than 5,000 people.
While speakers included the vice-president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), Chua Tian Chang, who is better known as Tian Chua, and Bersih 2.0 chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah (pictured below), yesterday’s rally was dominated by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Tian Chua, (pictured below, centre) who is the MP for Batu, was heckled when he referred to the Islamic party Amanah, formed by a PAS splinter group.
The MP was telling rallygoers that the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, which is made up of the PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Amanah, would reject the TPP during next week’s parliamentary debate.
On Saturday, several hundred Amanah supporters stayed separate from the PAS protesters and listened to speeches in another area of the city centre.
Tian Chua says there is no proof that Malaysia will derive any economic benefit from the TPP. He points out that Malaysia’s neighbours, Indonesia and the Philippines, are not part of the agreement.
One risk that Tian Chua and others highlight is that of medical costs increasing because of reduced access to generic medicines.
Tian Chua said the TPP was not a trade agreement at all. “It is not about investment. It’s about the sovereignty of our nation. We will see Malaysia lose its democratic rights; the right to determine our own economic development.”
Malaysians want to welcome healthy investment into the country, Tian Chua says, not to tie itself into the geopolitics of the US.
“The US is trying to use the TPP as an instrument to engage in a trade war with China. We are not about to take sides with either country. We want to maintain our sovereignty; to make decisions for our own future.”
The Malaysian government, Tian Chua says, should be conducting a comprehensive study of the impacts of the TPP and should not be signing such an agreement in a rush. “It is more important to build a transparent, corruption-free government, which would attract much more investment than the TPP.”
As a minimum, Tian Chua says, the government should not rush through the deal. “It should wait for further study, and even see how the other countries debate the issues.”
Expert on trade and investment rules Sanya Reid-Smith, who is the legal advisor and senior researcher at the international coalition the Third World Network, said at a recent NGO briefing about the TPP in Malaysia that the agreement has 24 non-trade chapters.
The 6,350-page document has only six chapters that can be considered as a free-trade agreement, she says.
Referring to Malaysia, Reid-Smith said that 24 of the thirty chapters were about the country’s laws and regulations: “environmental laws, labour laws, and intellectual property laws that affect medicine prices and text books; the ability of state and local governments to regulate”.
Reid-Smith says that, when the US negotiates free-trade agreements, it has a template. “They have their 29 chapters, and they bring them to you and they say, you could make a few changes in the margins, and that’s it.
“Basically, you swallow it whole. And you can see this when you look at the past US free-trade agreements. They’re all very similar. But there are a couple of new tricks in the TPP that make it worse for Malaysia. Fresh new tricks.”
A major criticism of the TPP is that it will give corporations and the US even more power to sue member countries if they consider their own interests are being negatively affected.
Reid-Smith said: “If Malaysia signs, and the TPP comes into force, and Malaysia doesn’t comply with the services chapter, or the export taxes restrictions, the US government can sue the Malaysian government at an international court, or tribunal”.
The Malaysian government would lose, Reid-Smith says, and the US government could then raise the taxes on Malaysian exports of electronics or clothes to the US until Malaysia changed its law to comply.
Corporations would be able to sue Malaysia with no maximum damages, Reid-Smith adds.
“The TPP’s investment chapter has another level of enforcement. Not just governments can sue each other, but the foreign investor, e.g. Lynas in Malaysia, can sue the Malaysian government at the international tribunal, for money. Unlimited monetary damages. No maximum in the TPP.”
PAS vice-president Iskandar Abdul Samad (pictured left) says the TPP is “back-door economic colonisation” by the US.
He says the protest against the TPP agreement is not political.
“This is about the people of Malaysia. We are against the TPPA because we fear that, if we sign it, it is as if we are signing off our independence.”
Malaysian firms need protection from bigger companies from other countries, Iskandar says. “If we just open up our doors, I don’t think we can cope with that competition.” For instance, Iskandar adds, rice can be produced much more cheaply in the US than in Malaysia. “If we let them flood our market with those products, it will simply kill off our business here.”
Chairman of the People’s Congress NGO grouping, Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid (pictured below, left), said Malaysia’s right to self-determination and self-governance would be cancelled out by the TPP.
Azmi also says the US has a geopolitical agenda in the opening up of so-called free trade. “That to me is a very dangerous thing.” The US claims that there is protection for TPP member countries, Azmi says, but the text of the agreement doesn’t provide adequate safeguards.
The TPP promises more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), more exports, and more market opportunities, but these are only potential outcomes, Azmi says. There are no guarantees. However, the negative impacts are almost certain, he adds.
“We hope that the GDP will rise and we hope that there will be more FDI, but there are no concrete assurances that we will definitely gain. The opposite has happened to many countries.”
There are objections to the TPP among both Democrats and Republicans in the US, Azmi points out.
Many critics of the TPP, including Maria Chin Abdulla, argue that small and medium-sized enterprises will be among the worst hit if the TPP takes effect.
Chin Abdullah says she hopes the Malaysian government will listen and not just rubberstamp the TPP in parliament. She hopes that MPs will vote according to their conscience and not just follow the party whips.
Najib argues that Malaysia, which relies on exports of commodities, minerals, and electronics, needs to be part of the TPP, whose signatories account for 40 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and about one-third of all world trade.
A special parliamentary session will convene in the Dewan Rakyat (lower house) to debate the TPP Bill on January 26 and 27, with debate in the Senate scheduled for January 28.
Given that the ruling Barisan National coalition has a parliamentary majority, the Bill is expected to pass.
Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has come out strongly against the TPP, saying Malaysia’s independence will be at stake if the agreement is signed.
Countries involved in the agreement have two years to ratify it at a national level before the mechanisms take effect.
Last updated on 25/01/2016.