Much work to be done before and after TPP becomes reality: PM Lee

Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching arriving in Manila on Wednesday.
Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching arriving in Manila on Wednesday.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Leaders of 12 Pacific Rim economies may have signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but there is still much work to be done before and after it becomes a reality, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Nov 18).

They must, among other things, obtain domestic approval of the landmark trade deal, make sure its benefits are shared widely, and help those that are affected by greater competition, he said.

Speaking at a closed door meeting of TPP members on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders' Meeting in Manila, Mr Lee also said that Singapore stands ready to sign the agreement and hopes that it comes into effect within two years.

"I think not all countries' ratification will be as simple a process, but having come thus far, we should press on," he said.

If ratification from all 12 countries is not obtained after two years, the TPP can still become binding if at least six signatories have ratified the agreement, and the six of them represent at least 85 per cent of the total gross domestic product of the 12 countries that signed the pact.

But without the US and Japan both signing, the other nations fall far short of the 85 per cent target. US President Barack Obama has thrown his backing behnd the TPP but prominent lawmakers have voiced their opposition to the free trade pact and it will face close scrutiny in Congress.

The new Candian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was attending his first TPP meeting and Apec summit, had expressed reservations about the deal shortly after his election and said this week the TPP will be reviewed in parliament before a decision is made.

But Mr Lee encouraged Canada to endorse the pact after going through its domestic consultations. He noted that as Canada was one of two TPP countries with which Singapore did not have a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), the TPP was one way to add to the relationship between both nations.

Addressing the leaders in general, Mr Lee also said it was important to "educate the man on the street as to what TPP means" so as to persuade the people to undertake "reform where reform is needed and it is probably inevitable".

This is because although "the TPP will be a net plus for each country", "there will surely be winners and losers within each country". Governments must therefore ensure that prosperity is spread out in society and also lend a helping hand to workers affected by more open markets.

For instance, Mr Lee said, Singapore used to be one of the biggest disk drive manufacturers in the world. But the sector was eventually no longer cost competitive and business flowed to Vietnam, Thailand and China.

"But within Singapore, after a period of restructuring, we were able to reskill the affected workers to do other jobs, not just in electronics, and we kept a full employment economy which keeps on growing, having transitioned from one industry, one technology into another," he said. "And so too we must do, all of us with the TPP."

The TPP should also be viewed as just one pathway to the larger goal of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, proposed 10 years ago by Apec.

It is "a major step forward, but it is not the last word in trade liberalisation", he said, as there are other frameworks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - a 16-party agreement between Asean and its FTA partners - and the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American trade bloc of four South American countries that border the Pacific Ocean.

"They each have their pluses and minuses, but I think they each have their part to play," he said.

Noting that the TPP was reached by gradually expanding an initial four-country agreement to its current 12 members, Mr Lee added that the pact should welcome other countries that wish to join and can meet its standards.

At an earlier session at the Apec CEO summit, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said his country was considering if it wants to join the trade pact as it was still studying the impact of such a move.

Among the regional economies, South Korea has also expressed keen interest in being a part of the TPP.