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Workshop on “Malaysia-US free trade agreement: Issues, implications and challenges” - summary report

Third World Network | Kuala Lumpur | 15 November 2006

Workshop on “Malaysia-US Free Trade Agreement: Issues, Implications and Challenges” - Summary Report


The Workshop on “Malaysia-US Free Trade Agreement: Issues, Implications and Challenges” was held on 6 September 2006 in Kuala Lumpur. It was jointly organized by the Third World Network (TWN) and the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP). The workshop was attended by more than 100 participants representing government ministries and agencies, policy makers, NGOs, civil society groups, academics, local industries, professional bodies, trade unions, farmers and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The workshop was part of a series of public forums organized by the two organizations to disseminate information about the Malaysia-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It was particularly timely in light of the fact that negotiations with the United States on the FTA have begun, with the 3rd round expected to commence on 18 September 2006 in Kuala Lumpur.

The main objective of the workshop was to share information and views about the Malaysia-US FTA. The workshop was opened by S.M. Mohamed Idris, President of CAP and Chairman of the TWN. There were two morning sessions, during which presentations were given by experts, mainly from the TWN, on the key aspects of the FTA (market access, services, intellectual property rights, investment, government procurement, competition), following which there were discussions. There were two afternoon sessions, comprising panel presentations on two main issues: impact of the FTA on the domestic economy, and social implications of the FTA. Among the several speakers were the President of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), the President of PERDASAMA (Persatuan Pedagang dan Pengusaha Melayu Malaysia), a representative of local generic pharmaceutical manufacturers, a representative of people living with HIV/AIDS, a representative from the Coalition Against Privatization of Healthcare Services, a farmers’ representative and the Secretary of Sahabat Alam Malaysia. At the end, there was a closing session with a summary of conclusions.

This report summarizes the key views and conclusions of the Workshop.


While Malaysia may seek to gain benefits from a US FTA, such as preferential terms of export for its products, and an improved investment climate for foreign investment, it is important to recognize that bilateral agreements, especially between a developing and a developed country, may have significant drawbacks compared to multilateral negotiations and agreements. The latter is preferable as developing countries have greater bargaining power via coalitions at the multilateral level, and it is trade creating, rather than diverting trade from other countries that are cheaper sources. The consequences of US FTAs, which usually require the developing country to undertake more burdensome obligations than required under the WTO (commonly called “WTO-plus obligations”), are further compounded by disparity in negotiating strength between the countries. In addition, differing capacities and resources may mean that the US, for example, would be better placed to take advantage of the FTA opportunities that are also available to Malaysia, such as in services, investment, government procurement and intellectual property.

The Malaysia-US FTA is one of a new breed of bilateral agreements, which are not merely about trade per se, but are much broader in scope and encompass a range of economic and social issues. The US Government obtains its authority to negotiate FTAs from the Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which also sets certain parameters for what the US Government can offer in negotiations. Furthermore, US FTAs follow a template where the chapters and main provisions are very similar and many parts are not negotiable. Therefore, it is largely possible to predict the content of a future Malaysia-US FTA on the basis of existing US FTAs.

Before entering into the Malaysia-US FTA, it is essential that a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis be conducted, in terms of its various components, as well as the overall balance. There may be possible benefits in terms of gaining some market access in some goods to the US. However, this needs to be weighed against the possible costs, for example in increased US exports to Malaysia, opening up of services, increased obligations on intellectual property rights (IPRs) beyond the requirements of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and provisions related to investment, government procurement and competition policy. Malaysia is likely to suffer costs in terms of having to give up policy space (space to be able to institute policies for national development) and use of policy instruments, with ensuing socio-economic and political implications. Such a cost-benefit analysis would be very useful to create public discussion on the issue, for which transparency and public participation are important, given the possible far-reaching effects on society.


In 2005, Malaysia had an annual US$23 billion trade surplus with the US. It may be possible for Malaysia to obtain some extra market access in the US, but this may be constrained by structural, legal and political impediments that limit the offers that the US Trade Representative can make. For example, restrictive “rules of origin” such as the “yarn forward rule” would make it difficult for Malaysia to export more textiles to the US, even if US tariffs are significantly lowered. On the other hand, the US’s National Association of Manufacturers estimates it will be able to double its exports to Malaysia by 2010 under an FTA.

Malaysia currently has higher tariffs than the US, so any tariff cuts would demand a bigger sacrifice on Malaysia’s part. The US will likely demand that Malaysia cuts all of its tariffs to zero percent, including on rice, alcohol and tobacco, although there may be varying periods before these come into effect. It is essential that Malaysia analyze the impacts of bringing tariffs down to zero percent on US goods, particularly for sensitive products such as rice. Bringing tariffs down to zero percent would mean the loss of a policy instrument to protect against artificially cheap products coming in from the US.

In agricultural products, Malaysia may hope to gain some market access, but the gains can be limited. For example, Australia was unable to achieve significant additional market access for its main export, beef, or sugar, in its US FTA. While Mexico was able to increase its vegetable exports under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), this benefit was more than offset in products such as maize, which is the main crop for Mexico, and other key agricultural products, for which the US gained much more market access. As a result the main agriculture sector of Mexico was seriously damaged, and three million Mexican farmers have since left the land. This is compounded by an inherent imbalance, in that the US provides agricultural subsidies, allowing cheap US agricultural exports below the cost of production, with ensuing difficulties for its trading partners.

Economic thinking now suggests that developing countries should not rapidly decrease their industrial tariffs. Importantly, as a country develops, it should retain the ability to raise its industrial tariffs on certain products such as inputs and machinery, at the right moment and sequence, in order to temporarily protect these sectors and allow a country to industrialize. If Malaysia’s industrial tariffs on US products are reduced to zero percent and bound, this will reduce Malaysia’s future ability to move up the value chain by increasing tariff protection temporarily for new, high technology industries until they can compete. Such a move would eliminate policy space, and foreclose the possibility of fostering a mature industrialized economy.


Services are the most important sector of the Malaysian economy for employment, local participation, and social policy. The Malaysian Government has successfully ensured greater local ownership and participation through careful government policies over the last 50 years.

Malaysia’s gradual unilateral liberalization of services has allowed calibration of the degree and rate of liberalization with the growth and capacity of the local services sector, such that local companies can cope. Importantly, Malaysia has retained the policy space to reverse liberalization in some sectors when circumstances changed or when foreign competition hurt local small and medium enterprises. Malaysia’s highly effective capital controls and other policies during the 1997 Asian financial crisis were possible, without paying compensation, because its financial services liberalization had not been locked in by committing at the WTO or in an FTA.

At the WTO, services liberalization occurs via a positive list where only those sectors listed will be opened to foreign competition. Furthermore, a country has no legal obligation to liberalize, and can liberalize at its own pace, and under its own conditions. It can even choose not to liberalize certain sectors. In contrast, in US FTAs, services liberalization occurs on a negative list basis where all sectors are opened to US competition, unless they are listed in a “carve-out” or reservations list. This requires much more detailed knowledge and impact analysis of all the service sectors, and means that any future new sectors, which may not be known or exist now, such as new financial instruments, are automatically opened to US competition.

The US, which has large services companies, has highlighted Malaysia’s policies in banking, telecommunications, broadcasting, retail/distribution and professional services sectors as non-tariff barriers and areas where it wants to see market access.


Investment policy is one of the main instruments of government in term of social engineering (for example, in stipulating equity requirements). For development reasons Malaysia has carefully vetted foreign investment applications and imposed conditions on foreign investors such as transfer of technology.

An investment agreement was consistently and strongly opposed by developing countries, including Malaysia, at the WTO, as they were concerned that this would prevent or reduce their policy space to determine their own investment policies. However, the obligations of the investment chapter in US FTAs go far beyond the provisions proposed at the WTO because, for example, it requires US investors and investments to be treated at least equal to locals (national treatment), including in pre-establishment rights, which affords national treatment before an investor enters the country, unless the exceptions are listed in the FTA. Performance requirements such as transfer of technology are also prohibited except in certain circumstances or for listed exceptions.

US FTAs also have an expropriation provision that requires compensation, including interest, for direct or indirect expropriation of an investment. As ‘investment’ is defined very broadly to include tangible and intangible property, loans, shares, intellectual property etc., investors can directly sue the state at an international tribunal for violations of the investment chapter of a US FTA, including the expropriation provision. ‘Indirect investment’ could mean losses resulting from government regulation or policy. For example, cases have been brought claiming loss of future market share under NAFTA provisions, due to banning of dangerous chemicals.

Furthermore, a US FTA investment chapter could affect Malaysia’s ability to put in place capital controls and other policies such as those used during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, due to its requirements to allow free transfers of capital.


Government procurement is an important macroeconomic tool for stability and management. It enables the government to spend more to stimulate the economy in times of recession and if this money is spent on local products and local companies, its beneficial effects are multiplied within the local economy. Furthermore, government procurement can be used to achieve social policy objectives such as assisting disadvantaged groups or regions.

Many developing countries, including Malaysia, fought to keep government procurement off the WTO negotiating agenda. The WTO working group had the mandate to only discuss “transparency in government procurement”, with possible rules limited to only the transparency aspects, and excluding market access aspects, i.e., enabling foreign companies to bid on equal terms with local companies for government contracts.

US FTAs go far beyond what was being discussed at the WTO. US FTAs typically have a government procurement chapter that requires market access for US companies in the sectors listed. This will affect federal, state and probably municipal governments. Despite some safeguards that can be included, or even if discussions are limited to transparency aspects, there will be pressure for Malaysia to progressively open up government procurement.


As Malaysia is a member of the WTO, it must abide by the minimum standards of intellectual property (IP) protection set in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and is afforded flexibilities in its implementation. However, as 98% of patents granted in Malaysia are to foreigners, it may not want to further increase this protection.

It has been argued that intellectual property rights (IPRs) can increase innovation, research and development, foreign direct investment, technology transfer, industrial development and economic growth. However the experience of other countries and economic theory do not always bear this out. In particular, a survey of the pharmaceutical industry in Malaysia found that the strength of patent protection had little or no impact on their decisions to conduct research and development in Malaysia, invest in Malaysia or transfer technology.

Yet, US FTAs require stronger levels of intellectual property protection than that stipulated by the TRIPS Agreement, as well as remove the flexibilities provided for in the TRIPS Agreement. In practice, increasing IP protection would apply to all applicants, not just those from the US. In addition to requiring parties to the FTA to sign many TRIPS-plus IP agreements, which may not be in Malaysia’s interests, the IP chapter of US FTAs also covers trademarks, copyright, patents and other forms of intellectual property. For example, the copyright provisions typically extend copyright protection from 50 years (as obliged under the TRIPS Agreement) to 70 or 95 years after the death of the author.

Of particular concern is the impact of the IP chapter of US FTAs on access to affordable medicines. Patented medicines can be more than 100-fold more expensive than their generic equivalents. US FTAs typically have provisions that increase the number of medicines that can be patented, make patents last for longer, make patents easier to obtain and allow five-year monopolies even when there is no patent, via data exclusivity. Malaysia successfully issued a type of compulsory licence in 2003 to import some anti-retroviral medicines used to treat AIDS and as a result, prices fell by 81%. US FTAs often restrict the situations in which compulsory licences can be used and can make them ineffective by prohibiting registration of any medicine until the end of the patent period (at which time a compulsory licence is no longer needed). The Thai and Peruvian Ministries of Health have estimated that their US FTAs would cause their medicine spending to more than double in the first year of their US FTA and get worse after that.

The TRIPS Agreement requires some life forms to be patented (microorganisms) if they meet patentability criteria, but allows the prohibition of patenting of plants and animals. TRIPS also requires that protection be granted for plant varieties either by patents or an effective sui generis system. Countries have the flexibility to define their own sui generis system of protection for plant varieties, including safeguarding farmers’ rights to save, reuse, exchange and sell seeds. The US, which allows patents on plants and animals, may ask Malaysia to do the same, even though the Patent Act 1983 does not allow the patenting of animal or plant varieties or naturally-occurring microorganisms. US FTAs also typically require ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV Convention) 1991, which affords near-monopoly plant breeders’ rights at the expense of farmers’ rights. Malaysia already has a sui generis law, the Protection of New Plant Varieties Act 2004, which is unique to meet the needs of the country and protects small farmers and local researchers. This would have to be amended if Malaysia ratifies UPOV 1991.


During the workshop, two panel discussions were held, with representatives from trade unions (Malaysian Trade Union Congress, MTUC), local generic pharmaceutical manufacturers (Malaysian Organisation of Pharmaceuticals Industry, MOPI), association of bumiputera entrepreneurs (Persatuan Pedagang dan Pengusaha Melayu Malaysia, PERDASAMA), health and environmental NGOs, people living with HIV/AIDS and farmers giving their views on the proposed Malaysia-US FTA.

On implications for the domestic economy, one of the key issues and concerns raised was the probable US takeover of many businesses, due to the restrictions that may be placed on the Malaysian Government’s ability to protect and foster local industries. While local businesses and the private sector drive the economy, they could be weakened and some even destroyed under the US FTA. A major concern was also the demand of the US to open up government procurement, which could result in the loss of an important tool for macroeconomic stability, national development and social equity.

Most of the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals in Malaysia are generics manufacturers. The generics industry as a whole strongly opposes the provisions on data exclusivity in the US FTA, because of the serious impact it would have on the industry. It was stressed that the generics industry actually makes a positive contribution towards the community, as generic medicines are cheaper.

Furthermore, concerns were raised with regard to the Malaysia-US FTA’s impact on employment and workers. Development in the economy should translate into quality employment opportunities and an increased standard of living for workers and their families. There were worries expressed that the US FTA could jeopardize these goals, as shown in the case of Mexico under NAFTA.

People living with HIV/AIDS are extremely concerned that the US FTA’s TRIPS-plus provisions would result in increased medicine prices. Many of the HIV-positive community depend on generic medicines that are far cheaper and easily accessible. If generic medicines become unavailable, this would deny them access to the medicines required for their survival, as patented medicines are very expensive. Many have died and many more will die if medicine prices are increased.

Moreover, the investment chapter of the Malaysia-US FTA is also likely to impact on healthcare. There were worries that the introduction of schemes and regulations ensuring equitable distribution of healthcare could be prevented.

Concerns were also raised that the Malaysia-US FTA would compound the widespread poverty faced by the majority of Kedah rice farmers. Many of them have no knowledge about the FTA, yet could be adversely affected by it, particularly if the country is flooded with cheap agricultural imports from the US. Even if the Government were able to continue to protect rice, this would be meaningless in the face of increased prices of other imported inputs.

Even though the environment chapter of the Malaysia-US FTA could be used as leverage to ensure that Malaysia enforces its environmental laws, this should be resolved nationally, rather than allowing the US to police Malaysia’s implementation of environmental laws. In addition, there are many other environmental concerns that arise. The investment chapter under a US FTA, for example, could take away the government’s policy space to prevent and regulate dirty industries and products. Cynicism was expressed with regard to whether the US was genuinely concerned about protecting the environment, especially when it does not support multilateral environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and moreover rejects measures such as the labeling of genetically modified food. There was concern that other measures under the chapters dealing with the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade, could be abused in the name of protecting the environment.

In general, the lack of transparency over the negotiations and the rush to complete negotiations according to the timetable set by the US were also raised as serious concerns that need to be urgently addressed. Given that the Malaysia-US FTA may affect different aspects of Malaysian life and all parts of Malaysian society, public awareness, public participation and transparency were seen as essential elements of a national discussion on the issue.

 source: TWN