With TPP dead, what’s next for its critics?

By Zurairi AR
Socialist Party of Malaysia’s (PSM) secretary-general A. Sivarajan speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur April 25, 2017. PSM petitioned a bank on a disabled man’s behalf to save his home from repossession. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, April 26 — The controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was declared dead when United States president Donald Trump took office earlier this year, and with that, its once-vocal critics here have seemingly subsided.

While these critics may be celebrating the TPP’s demise, it would be wrong to assume that they are completely appeased and fully disbanded.

With the similarly contentious Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on the horizon, they are now drafting a “people’s charter” as a pre-emptive response to future trade deals.

“These trade agreements are becoming a global phenomenon. Behind these, there is a specific corporate interest in it … We think it is not just enough to do just fire-fighting. Malaysia will continuously go to do trade,” A. Sivarajan, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia that is spearheading the initiative, told Malay Mail Online.

“And thus, in order to tackle this, the people must come out pro-actively to have our own charter saying that if there is a trade agreement to be made, it should not sacrifice our right, welfare and benefits.”

Sivarajan said the charter is a natural progression for the grassroots movement that began in 2005, and which identified around 50 “red lines” the authorities must not cross when negotiating the trade deals that mostly are done in secret.

Since the RCEP — which will involve 10 Asean countries and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand — is currently under way, the groups decided now is the right time to specify what those “red lines” are.

Drawing red lines that Putrajaya must not cross

The conference on the “People’s Charter on International Trade Agreements” taking place today will include a roundtable to identify what and how rights are at risk from trade deals.

Among recurring public concerns in almost all modern trade deals include the patent rights for medicine, the import of agricultural products, and the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision where companies can sue a state for alleged discrimination.

Sivarajan admitted that although the ISDS provision has existed for decades and provides security and certainty for investors here, he warned that the system can be abused without proper safeguards.

Recognising that trade is essential and unavoidable, the conference also aims to explore and propose alternative trade models that are more friendly to public.

“There is a concept known as ‘development justice’ … Everyone agree we need development, but how do we have one that is just, and the wealth is shared by everyone. With sustainable development and all,” he said.

Sivarajan also pointed to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, also known as Alba, where the integration of its 11 Latin American and the Caribbean countries goes beyond the economy, and included bartering based on expertise and welfare aid.

Malay rights versus Malaysian rights

Among those invited to the conference today are civil society groups such as Third World Network, BantahTPPA, Aliran, Kuasa, environmental groups such as Sahabat Alam Malaysia, women’s groups such as Empower, and health organisations such as the Malaysian Aids Council.

The opposition to the increasing dominance of foreign companies in the local economy would inevitably bring pro-Malay and Bumiputera groups to the fore, but Sivarajan said the question of ethnic and racial issues take a backseat to larger concerns.

He said civil societies will continue to fight for transparency and fairness in a democratic manner, but when it comes to trade deals, they believe that the government must have the powers to regulate the economy and distribute contracts to local firms.

“Before we distribute the system equally among our own people, the big chunk of it will be taken by foreigners. It makes the situation worse

“When the cake is smaller, you get more people fighting for it, so it would push you further down. It does not help us,” Sivarajan said.

Sivarajan conceded that there is nothing to compel Putrajaya to adopt and recognise the People’s Charter, but said the conference would at least provide an initial working document that can be circulated among other lobby groups.

A people’s action plan and campaign will follow the charter to raise awareness and lobby MPs, he said.

But more importantly, the charter would seek to serve as a viable alternative model to the government faced with opposition from the public.

“We will not stop here … It’s not that we are blindly protesting. If the government asks what do we want, then we can say, ‘we have an alternative’,” Sivarajan said.