Treading carefully on TPPA

Source: The Star

 

There is fear that Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed may be bending over too much with his pledges to please everybody in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. But he has to take the punches and remain standing.

WHILE attending a ministerial meeting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Brunei three weeks ago, Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed was informed that a newspaper columnist had questioned his credibility as the International Trade and Industry Minister in the TPPA negotiations.

The columnist from a widely read national newspaper attacked Mustapa for being ignorant on the free trade negotiations and that Miti officials were giving him the wrong advice.

The writer accused the negotiators have lost their nationalist spirit. In other words, they could be seen as traitors. If the article hurt him, Mustapa refused to show his feelings.

“The minister told us don’t worry, continue working, you have the mandate from the Cabinet,” said an official who admitted he felt demoralised after reading the column.

To the uninitiated, there are 21 Malaysian lead negotiators involved in the TPPA and they represent many ministries. These negotiators are backed by many others including from GLCs like Khazanah.

The negotiations involve 12 countries and will create a huge duty free market of 800 million people with a combined GDP of US$27.5 trillion (RM85.25 trillion).

This week when Mustapa was asked again on some quarters playing the race card vis-a-vis the role of the negotiators, he responded: “There are 21 of them, they are multiracial. They have done their best.

“I call the shots and I am the minister responsible. Yes, they are negotiators but in the end, its got to come to me and the Cabinet.”

A few months ago when criticisms against the TPPA started building up, a senior official had warned that it was a matter of time before the race card crops up.

It is for a simple reason. The chief negotiator is J. Jayasiri, a non-Malay official who has served Miti for almost 25 years.

Another non-Malay, Miti’s secretary-general Datuk Rebecca Sta Maria, was somehow also named as part of the negotiating team although she was not directly involved in the process. Rebecca is a no-nonsense official. To Miti officers, she is strict and to the media, she is effective because she makes herself available to explain any issue raised.

Mustapa has also been accused as being pro-Indian by some quarters who claim they have an interest in the TPPA.

And it doesn’t end there. Mustapa was told he would lose votes in the coming Umno elections. But Mustapa persevered. The man is patient and willing to bend over backwards.

As they say, you keep your friends close to you but your enemies closer.Mustapa never considered anybody an enemy. Instead, he prefers to engage his critics.

For example, one of the TPPA’s vocal critics is the Malay Economic Action Council (MTEM), which has expressed fear over the fate of Bumiputra SMEs, among others, as they may have to compete with bigger companies from the United States if the agreement is ratified.

Mustapa went the extra mile to engage MTEM leaders and has met them separately at least six times.

The result after three months of engagement? The perception among Miti folk is MTEM has become more understanding and not as hostile to the TPPA. Miti’s perseverance to change public perception via public engagement with other NGOs seems to be paying off. After the first Open Day to engage the public on the TPP, Miti held a second one on Tuesday.

According to those who attended the closed door event, there seemed to be more support this round unlike the first one which saw many hostile parties. This time, 12 negotiators were on stage to take the questions with Mustapa leading the group.

“There were many repeat questions but there is a sense of a better understanding among those present, maybe there has been more flow of information from the Government side,” said an official.

“The Government has been accused of being secretive but now we are telling them the Government’s stand.

“They demanded transparency and we give them that,” said an official.

However, in Miti’s efforts to engage the public, some quarters are already questioning whether the continuous engagement will be good for the Government.

“I think its an overkill when you make a lot of promises to the NGOs.

“The fear is when you make pledges to them, the TPPA may eventually not be what they expect,” said an observer.

The Government needs to tread carefully on this one. Some room for bargaining and trade-off in the negotiations will be needed.

Since negotiations are evolving, any change in positions will have to be in line with our principles of not affecting key national policies and the Constitution. The feel good factor that Miti is feeling right now may not last should the TPPA be eventually signed.

Should it fall short of what the NGOs and stakeholders demand, then the backlash will start again.

 

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