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US agrees to direct engagement with stakeholders on TPPA, says MTEM

Astro Awani, Malaysia

US agrees to direct engagement with stakeholders on TPPA, says MTEM

By Teoh El Sen

27 April 2014

KUALA LUMPUR: The US has agreed to hold direct engagements with key stakeholders on Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), according to the Malay business lobby group Malay Economic Action Council (MTEM) today.

This new undertaking by the US marks a significant shift in the negotiations for the controversial US-led free trade deal involving 12 countries, long been criticised over its secrecy and lack of transparency.

MTEM, among the most vocal critics of the TPPA, said that this was communicated to them by top US officials and diplomats who are in the entourage with President Barack Obama this morning.

“This is historic as it is a great departure from the previous American diplomatic approach. They have now agreed to a direct engagement with us,” said MTEM permanent trustee Rizal Faris Mohideen.

Rizal, who is also the Penang Malay Chamber of Commerce president, had met with United States Trade Representative and US chief negotiator for the TPPA Barbara Weisel in a closed-door meeting this morning together with MTEM CEO Mohd Nizam Mahshar.

The meeting, lasting one and a half hours at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, also included US ambassador Joseph Yun and Deputy Economic Counselor Matthew Ingeneri from the embassy.

The group discussed the 75 issues or ‘redlines’ that anti TPPA groups have drawn up.

Rizal said that the discussion today, the first of such a meeting, was “constructive” as the group was able to outline the fears and views that they claim represent the voice of the normal Malaysian on the trade pact.

Mohd Nizam said that from the meeting, it was clear that there was an “information gap” between the US and stakeholders, including economic associations and civil society.

“There is a lack of understanding of the reality of the local domestic situation by them, and of us of theirs,” Mohd Nizam said.

Mohd Nizam said that the US trade representatives had agreed that further talks would be held with MTEM and other key stakeholders on the matter, though this was not part of the official negotiation process with the Malaysian government.

“They agreed with us that issues on healthcare was very critical, and they also acknowledged that the issues surrounding investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), small and medium businesses and government procurements were things that are still highly debated even in the US,” said Mohd Nizam.

Still a ’no’ to TPPA

MTEM, said Mohd Nizam, continued to stand by that Malaysia must pull out of the TPPA.

“Our stand is the same. We cannot go ahead without substantive discussions. We don’t want to reject it as we are pro investment and trade,” he said, adding that the group was still waiting on a cost benefit analysis and national interest analysis that is being conducted by Unit Peneraju Agenda Bumiputera (Teraju) and Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) respectively.

On Friday, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed said the Malaysia will continue its discussions on the TPPA, and find flexible solutions on trade even if the agreement fails to materialise.

There has been no definitive deadline set for the conclusion of the agreement.

"At this point of time, we are discussing for flexibilities and to carve out some of the contentious issues at hand, but at some point of time, we have to make a decision whether we want to go ahead or not...we want our interests to be taken into account," he was quoted as saying.

The TPPA has entered its 19th rounds of negotiations, with Brunei hosting the latest round in Bandar Seri Begawan from Aug 23 to Aug 30 last year.

With Obama in Malaysia, analysts say it was a step closer to sealing the TPPA deal which lost momentum last year.

Among the key complaints against the TPPA was the fear that generic medicine prices will soar, the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that could potentially see the country being brought to international tribunal by multinationals, and worries that the deal would jeopardise local businesses, mainly SMEs.

TPPA involves 12 countries, namely Malaysia, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan with the US as the head.