'Why the secrecy in TPPA negotiations?'

PETALING JAYA (June 13): Concerned over the veil of secrecy that hangs over the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations, Klang MP Charles Santiago has urged the government to give stakeholders a comprehensive preview of what the agreement entails.

Charles also called for the establishment of a parliamentary select committee to study the impact of the free trade agreement being negotiated by Malaysia and 10 other countries across the Asia-Pacific region.

Malaysia will be hosting the 18th round of negotiations to hammer out details of the TPPA next month.

The other countries involved in the discussions that began in 2008 are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

"The negotiations have always been covert and secretive back door deals involving trade negotiators who have the interests of big businesses at heart. The people do not matter. This includes ordinary Malaysians as well," said Charles.

"Lawmakers have no idea as to what has transpired during these discussions. They have not been informed, despite repeated calls to do so from members of Parliament, trade unions and business groups," he said in a statement today.

He reminded Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that the clandestine process - tightly controlled by the International Trade and Industry Ministry – does not augur well for his administration.

Charles, a trained economist, has consistently demanded that the government reveal the details of the TPPA discussions to Parliament but has been repeatedly refused.

He insisted that the government provide all concerned groups with the cost-benefit analysis on the TPPA.

He is also seeking a briefing for all MPs in the upcoming parliamentary session, and the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on TPPA.

There should also be meaningful platforms for civil society and other stakeholders to participate in the upcoming round of negotiations in Malaysia, such as direct dialogue with the TPP negotiators, he added.

"In April 2012, I stood up in Parliament to ask the government about the risk of losing sovereignty under the TPPA's "investor-state trade dispute" mechanism.

"The then International Trade and Industries deputy minister, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, casually reassured Parliament that Malaysia's interest is protected because 'the government always had officers from the Attorney General's Chambers present during talks with foreign delegates'.

"Clearly he did not understand the severity of implications arising from these trade disputes. The TPPA is more than a commercial or trade deal although they are often guised as an instrument to improve trade on the basis of economic liberalisation," explained Charles.

"Once the TPPA rules and regulations are adopted by negotiating countries, it must be ratified by national governments or parliaments. Then local laws must be changed to accommodate the new rules agreed upon," he added.

The agreement could expose Malaysia's sovereignty as companies could sue the government for breach of agreement, which will be dealt at international arbitration centres based in Washington and Geneva.

Charles pointed out that the verdicts cannot be reviewed in domestic courts and companies can dictate policies to governments.

"The financial penalty or trade sanctions against elected governments meted out by these dispute arbitration centres are binding and severe. Trade sanctions can also be imposed against the countries' exports," he said.

For example, the government will have to establish new regulations ranging from food safety, government procurement, financial markets, intellectual property rights to medicine prices and Internet freedom.

"It's still not too late for Najib and his government to make good their promises of transparency and accountability. Next month's negotiations will provide an opportunity for the Malaysian government to include stakeholders in the discussions.

"Anything short of this would only mean that Najib's 'People First' rhetoric is merely hollow," he added.