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President Barack Obama has signed laws to “fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)”. Now we also better fast track our preparations to join the TPP too.

The TPP was supposed to be concluded at the end of the last two years, but failed to to do so because of delays in US legislative processes and approvals.

Now the ball is in the courts of 12 Pacific Rim Countries viz Malaysia, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the US.

Indonesia is not among the negotiating countries. Her population is large like China’s, but Indonesia is perhaps much more protective. China’s market is vastly bigger but she is nevertheless prepared to consider joining the TPP because China is more open to international competition.

What about us in Malaysia?

YB Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, our realistic Minister of International Trade says: “We are looking for the way forward, which includes engagement with ministries and industries, (and consumers) to make sure our concerns are adequately addressed.”

That is only right and proper. But we have to develop a strong national consensus soon. Many of our concerns are not unique to us. We can therefore consolidate our collaboration with the smaller like-minded countries, to negotiate for the best deal possible against the flexing mussels of giants such as the US and China.

However, we may have serious problems in “adequately addressing” our special concerns at home. These are related to our state enterprises (government-linked companies or GLC’s), Bumiputra interests, government tenders and contracts and other protected individuals, interests and procedures.

Here we have to be careful not to insist too much on unduly narrow, short-term preferences that benefit mainly the few powerful and parochial businessmen. They cannot and should not be protected forever, at the expense of the rakyat and our overall national progress.

In any negotiation, no party can play a zero sum game? It cannot be the case, where when I spin, whether it’s heads or tales, I win and you lose all the time! There has to be give and take.

In any case there are some TPP safeguards for affirmative action. But they cannot again be limitless and last forever.

Bumiputra businesses and state enterprises (GLC’s) will surely understand that their protective barriers have to be phased out sooner rather than later, as they face more globalization in the real world.

But if we succumb to internal resistance to change, transform and to go forward , we will have to pay a high price.

This will be the diminished international trade and investment, slow economic growth and poor employment prospects ,especially for our thousands of unemployed graduates from our local universities .

Then what will happen, with all the resultant frustration, resentment and possible social reaction?

Our MITI and other government negotiators are still of high calibre, despite our weak education system. They have and will try their best, to optimise Malaysia’s advantages from the TPP negotiations.

However, the minister and his able team can only be as strong as their political and public backing and support.

We hope that the government’s wide public consultations, with all stakeholders, politicians, businesses leaders, big and small, and general consumers, will bear fruit.

We hope that we will adopt reasonable positions and strategies together with the other TPP countries. Then Malaysia will be able to join the TPP and get into the main stream of international trade and investment — and flourish .

But if we choose to be slow to join, or reluctant to decide in time, then come around December this year, we will be marginalised from the TPP.

We could then well remain a prisoner in the present middle-income trap.

We cannot afford to remain the proverbial frog in the well.

If so, worse still, we could decline and even sink, especially if we don’t feel the rising temperatures of competition and meritocracy enclosing us all around.

So I hope we will join the TPP, for the sake of our longer-term national progress and sustainability.

Good luck to our able minister and tough negotiators.

Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam

Chairman ASLI Center of Public Policy Studies

June 29, 2015

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