Monday, January 15, 2007

US-Malaysia FTA: A Call to Action

This article is dedicated to my daughter, newborn nephew and the rest of our future generations.

Somewhere in the city of the gay, better known as San Francisco, two groups of people have been sitting around the negotiation table for days. Away from the prying eyes of the media, it signifies the fourth consecutive time that the delegates have managed to evade the journalists. Hiding behind a veil of secrecy, little do the people in the country they represent know that their future may solely lie in the hands of these representatives.

A brief survey that I have conducted shows that most Malaysians are not even aware of the fact that the government is negotiating with the United States to ratify a free trade agreement (FTA). Even those who are informed about it think that the FTA will bring prosperity to Malaysia. The situation is hardly surprising, given the fact that there has been an almost total blackout on the subject in the mainstream media. The widespread coverage given to the floods in Johor and the whole Altantuya fiasco, coupled with Malaysians' latest obsession with Astro Bonanza and other similar hedonistic pursuits, leave virtually no room for us to discuss the FTA.

It is due to this very unfortunate reason that this article is written. It is my sincere hope that the Malaysian public will heed this call to give the subject the attention that it desperately needs. The fact that the government refuses to be more transparent on the subject suggests that something is amiss. Prior to the start of the negotiation rounds, there was no attempt to gather feedback from the civil society, unions, NGOs, members of parliament and the people of Malaysia despite repeated calls by various parties. I believe it is our right to be informed about an issue that may have a profound impact not just on us, but also our children and future generations. After all, Malaysia as we know it may cease to exist if we keep resting on our laurels.

To the uninitiated, an FTA is an agreement to remove barriers to trade signed by two or more countries whose economies complement each other. These barriers may include tariff, quotas and preferences on goods and services traded between them. The foundation upon which this concept is built is the theory of comparative advantage, which argues that specialization in an industry in which a participant holds a comparative advantage will result in a net increase in wealth for everyone involved. What this basically means is that, Malaysia may end up (1) importing cars and engineering expertise from, and (2) exporting palm oil and timber to the US, with virtually no restrictions. The end result will be a win-win situation for both countries in the long run.

On the surface, it seems that the FTA will do Malaysia a lot of good. Malaysian farmers can more easily market their exotic fruits like durian and rambutan, fishermen can now sell more seafood to American consumers and companies can better export their goods and services. Furthermore, our shopping complexes will be flooded with cheap American clothes and shoes, and our roads may be filled with inexpensive but high-quality American cars. Local companies that hold monopolies in their industries will buckle down and improve their offerings in order to compete with their American counterparts. It is a dream made in heaven, something that many of us have always wanted.

Unfortunately, the reality is far more complicated than that. Since an FTA merely focuses on the total accumulated wealth and not the distribution of wealth, there is plenty of room for powerful corporations utilizing their financial and political resources to wipe out smaller competitors, especially those in protected industries with a comparative disadvantage. Ultimately, instead of creating a win-win situation for the participants, the disadvantaged may have a lot to lose after all.

In order to understand the problem better, consider the following scenarios:

  1. Local farmers and fishermen may struggle to compete with American agricultural products that are heavily subsidized by the US government. Our paddy farmers, who earn less than RM200 a month and constitute among the hardcore poor in Malaysia, are already struggling to compete with Thai rice when it comes to quality and price. Granting unrestricted access to cheaper American rice will only exacerbate their already grave condition.
  2. More medicines may be forced to be patented under the FTA. This will result in a US monopoly which will subsequently drive out local competitions. When there is no competition, the prices of medicines will skyrocket, leaving a large part of the country with no access to many affordable life-saving drugs.
  3. The United States, with her superior intellectual property and technological prowess, may decide to impose more patents on developing fields such as ICT and biotechnology. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) that own very little or no intellectual property, and whose livelihood and growth depend on some degree of protection from the government, may be driven out of business as a result.
  4. Our government has traditionally been very protective of the local car industry. Giving unrestricted access to cheap American cars will certainly spell the end for the already troubled industry. While this may be welcome news to some, it will at the same time drive many companies out of business, leaving thousands of people unemployed.
  5. Malaysia, who is rich in natural resources, may have her petrol, timber and palm oil exposed to maximum exploitation by big American corporations. Deforestations will become rampant, greenery will be razed, marine ecosystem destroyed and villages depopulated.
  6. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that countries that signed FTAs with the US are negatively affected. In Colombia, Canada and Peru, cheap generic medicines are becoming a thing of the past due to the influx of patented drugs. Mexican farmers are finally able to penetrate the American market, only to be severely offset by the influx of maize and other heavily-subsidized agricultural products from the US. The Committee for Asian Women claims that FTAs often result in less protection for female workers who are less economically secure. These events and many others have led the peoples of South Korea and Thailand to protest against US FTAs in their respective countries.

It is also important to note that while there have been a number of FTAs that have benefited Malaysia prior to this, what makes this one particular worrying is the simple fact that it involves the United States. If history and the current state of affairs are anything to go by, we have every reason to be suspicious of the United States' intention. Some may call it paranoia. Others may call it a mere conspiracy theory. I wish to call it nothing but reality.

One needs to study the recent history and developments in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and the Koreas to gather that behind these conflicts, there constantly lies a single underlying force that permeates through every stratum of society. This powerful force puts many governments through subtle and deceptive modernization and socio-economic schemes whose ultimate goal is to impose servitude on the peoples. Should the government leaders refuse to comply with a certain set of demands that favor it, the force will devise evil schemes to topple the governments and install puppet regimes in their place. If that still does not work in its favor, the force is left with no choice but to send thousands of young men and women to die in the name of democracy and justice. That force is none other than that of the United States of America.

Signing FTAs with countries around the globe is merely the latest weapon in its socio-political arsenal. Hiding behind the facade of war on terrorism to spread democracy and human rights, the United States' ultimate goal is nothing short of world domination. It is a new breed of imperialism, one that is seldom fought with guns, tanks and Apaches, but one that is fought by big corporations, financial institutions, government lobbyists and intelligence officers. It is a war whose means is so subtle and extremely devious that most see it as merely the inevitable byproduct of globalization. In reality, it is as evil and destructive as the traditional wars fought by its colonial forefathers.

It is my belief that the peace-loving and patriotic citizens of Malaysia will not stand by and let our beloved country succumb to the same fate. If you have read this far, it shows that you feel that the threat is as real and imminent as the devastating floods in Johor. At this juncture, you may be asking, "what can I do to help prevent this from happening?". Well, that is a question that you have to ask yourselves.

Most importantly, you may begin by educating yourselves about the whole issue surrounding FTAs and other related subjects. For once in your lives, drop those copies of Mastika, Apo! and Mangga, and start picking up copies of The Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Making Globalization Work and The Clash of Civilizations. Once you are well-versed in the subjects, you may reinforce your knowledge by discussing it with your peers over lunch and supper, as opposed to engaging yourselves in perpetual arguments about the superiority of Chelsea over Manchester United. You may also pass this article around via e-mail and mailing lists if you think that will help the cause. And if you think that that this message can reach a critical mass by translating it into other languages, by all means please do so. And as I am well aware, some of you know more than I do about the topic, so it is your responsibility to correct and reinforce our understanding of the issue. Let your members of parliament (MPs) know how you feel about the FTA, and demand that the topic be debated in the parliament. Last but not least, you may participate in organizations such as Third World Network (TWN), Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) that have been fighting for the same cause.

It is one thing to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States. It is quite another to conduct it behind a veil of secrecy and public scrutiny. The Malaysian public deserves to know how the FTA will affect their livelihood and future. After all, the poor and destitute are the ones who may suffer the most as a result. We owe it to our children and future generations to leave behind a legacy that upholds justice and equality. Imagine the world that they will inherit if we fail to heed the calls to action. No amount of regret will undo the their suffering if we choose to maintain the ignorance and reluctance that are so prevalent among us. We all have a part to play, so let us act on it.