No fixed timetable for conclusion of TPP free trade agreement: Malaysian PM Najib

Malaysia PM Najib Razak gives his keynote speech at the 20th Nikkei Conference in Tokyo, Japan. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Malaysia PM Najib Razak gives his keynote speech at the 20th Nikkei Conference in Tokyo, Japan. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement would strengthen his country's economic links, but hinted at lingering public opposition at home to the 12-nation pact.

Speaking at a Nikkei conference on Thursday, he said that the complexity of trade negotiations and deals could be "mistaken for conspiracy" and called for greater public engagement to ward off the risk of "public disaffection" that could scuttle a possible deal.

His remarks come at a time when there is growing pessimism of an early conclusion of the trade pact, which is expected to result in greater trade and investment, innovation, and jobs among partner countries.

During US President Barack Obama's visit to Japan in April, he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to break a deadlock in negotiations over the reduction of tariffs in agricultural products, a major stumbling block to a conclusion of the TPP.

Like Japan, Malaysia faces significant domestic opposition to the TPP.

In answer to a question, Datuk Seri Najib said that the comprehensive trade agreement goes beyond the usual trade investment and touches on areas such as state-owned enterprises and government procurement that strike at the core of domestic concerns in Malaysia, and indicated that he is prepared to wait unless such domestic concerns are addressed in a "flexible and creative" way.

Asked if the TPP could be concluded by summer, the Malaysian premier said that there should not be a fixed timetable.

"For Malaysia, we have summer throughout the year, so anytime is a good time," he quipped.

Without addressing domestic sensitivities, the trade pact would be a hard sell to Malaysians, Mr Najib told an audience of about 500 people, comprising mostly executives and businessmen from Japan.

He noted that while the compromises made and the benefits secured are clear to governments and businesses involved in the lengthy negotiations, "the long-term benefits can be less tangible" to ordinary people.

"In an age of increasing integration, we must ensure we take the people with us - explaining the process, and describing the benefits more clearly."

The TPP negotiations began in earnest in 2010, and the original unofficial target date for the conclusion of the pact was 2013. In April 2013, Japan became the 12th country to enter the negotiations. A successful conclusion of the pact would see a free trade area that accounts for almost 40 per cent of the world's economy, and will reflect the US commitment to Asia.

Apart from the US, Japan and Malaysia, the other TPP partners are Singapore, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Vietnam.

boonlai@sph.com.sg