Critical Analyses, Musings and General Observations on Malaysian and International Health Law. All views are mine unless expressly stated otherwise.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Government Trade Policy Shift: What has Changed?

 When I attended the 15th Round of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations in Auckland last December, it hit me that the campaign for access to medicines and fair trade really doesn’t have much time left. The rumours at that time were that negotiations would conclude in October 2013.

The TPPA, a US-led free trade agreement that has very little to do with trade, is a beefed-up version of previous US free trade agreements (FTAs) designed to maximise corporate power and profits, while ignoring and minimising patient rights, worker rights, internet user rights, and environmental rights. It is being negotiated between 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Viet Nam.

In 2007-2008 when the Barisan National-led Malaysian government was negotiating the US-Malaysia FTA, there seemed to be no shortage of objections to TRIPS-plus and other provisions in the TPPA that would negatively impact access to medicines, farmer’s rights, and tobacco use in Malaysia. The then Agriculture Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (now Deputy Prime Minister) said that the Government would not compromise on the livelihood of local farmers, and excluded tobacco and rice from the ambit of the agreement.[1] Meanwhile, the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Rembau, Negeri Sembilan and UMNO Youth Chief wrote in his blog that the US-Malaysia FTA was ‘a serious test to our sovereignty’ and stringent patent protections in US demands were a ‘real danger’, denying access to more affordable generic medicines[2] for longer.

The negotiations for the US-FTA broke down, with the Malaysian Cabinet having over 50 ‘red lines’ or matters that the Malaysian government simply would not compromise.

Today, the TPPA negotiations seem to be proceeding without so much as a squeak from dissenting Barisan politicians. What has changed? The TPPA is a stronger trade agreement, not weaker. Have farmers’ and patients’ rights become acceptable to sacrifice for short-term economic gains? What (or who) has been the catalyst for all this change?

Prime Minister Najib Razak may just be it. On 29 and 30 May 2012, he received American Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, notorious free trade advocates, at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Senator McCain later commented in a tweet that PM Najib was ‘improving US-Malaysia relations.’[3]  In September 2012, the PM said that the TPPA was a ‘promising pathway for free trade’.[4] On 20 November 2012, he attended a TPPA meeting in Phnom Penh with President Obama, PM Gillard, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and other TPPA country leaders.[5] It may very well be that PM Najib’s keenness for the TPPA and Malaysia-EU FTA is being reflected throughout the party.

The only Barisan politician who has spoken up, quite surprisingly, is the Minister of Health Liow Tiong Lai, who said in an interview after the Malaysian AIDS Council forum on the TPPA at the Bar Council on 4 August 2012, ‘We are against the patent extension.’[6] (Patent extensions are part and parcel of US free trade agreements, and they result in delays of entry of more affordable generic medicines into markets.) Also relevant is MP Khairy Jamaluddin’s response to me in regard to his 2008 blog post on twitter today:

What may have also changed is the level of tobacco industry interference in government policy. During my 6-month tenure as a Research Officer in the Ministry of Health from October 2010-March 2011, I noticed personally that Big Tobacco companies had direct access to the Minister when even MOH officers did not have access. This interference may be reflected in the decision not to raise tobacco taxes last year. It may also be reflected in trade negotiators’ very strong pro-tobacco stance in the TPPA, and their referring to statistics released by the tobacco industry in Malaysia, statistics usually only known by the tobacco industry themselves and tobacco control professionals. (Note: Tobacco industry interference in policymaking is specifically prohibited in Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or FCTC, a Convention to which Malaysia is a party)

The reason I’ve written this article, really, is to implore Barisan politicians to speak up, or at the very least, meet with the Malaysian Chief Negotiator J. Jayasiri of MITI to express your concerns personally before it is too late.

Here is a short timeline of notable events that have occurred in recent years on TPPA:

October 2010
Malaysia announces that it has joined the TPPA negotiations
5-9 December 2011
Mini-round of negotiations held in Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, health groups protest outside negotiation venue and Tan Sri Mohd Zaman Khan, President of Malaysian AIDS Council hands petition to US negotiators.
29-30 May 2012
PM Najib meets with pro-free trade American senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman in Kuala Lumpur
2-10 July 2012
San Diego round of negotiations held, Malaysian health coalition Joint Statement handed out to US and Malaysian negotiators. Joint Statement endorsed by Malaysian AIDS Council, MTAAG+ and National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM)
4 August 2012
Public Forum on Medicines and the TPPA co-hosted by Malaysian AIDS Council and Breast Cancer Welfare Association
6 August 2012
Minister of Health Liow Tiong Lai states that MOH against patent extensions proposed by US in TPPA
September 2012
PM in Vladivostok for APEC meeting, comments that TPPA ‘promising pathway for free trade’.
20 November 2012
PM in Cambodia, meets with TPPA country leaders including President Obama and PM Gillard.
3-12 December 2012
15th Round of negotiations held in Auckland, New Zealand. At Stakeholder Briefing, I (Fifa Rahman) asked US Chief Negotiator Barbara Weisel: “We have been waiting 9 months for the new patent proposal that we understood was to be forthcoming, if it is coming, when can we expect it? Or will it be decided at the political level?” She answered that as it was a controversial issue, they will take their time and wait for congressional approval.
US Chief Negotiator Barbara Weisel at far right, Malaysian Chief Negotiator J Jayasiri fourth from left.

11 December 2012
My interview with Meera Sivasothy on BFM Radio on the Auckland Round of Negotiations. 

[1] Zulfakar, Mergawati. ‘Tobacco, rice excluded in FTA negotiations with US’ (January 15, 2007) The Star Online Accessed 12 February 2013.
[2] Jamaluddin, Khairy. ‘FTA must promote fair, not free trade’ (May 26, 2008) Accessed 12 February 2013
[3] New Straits Times ‘McCain: Najib an impressive reformer.’ (June 6, 2012) Accessed 12 February 2013
[4] Wong, Sai Wan. ‘PM: Msia, US want Trans-Pacific Partnerships talks to be wrapped up by end 2013’ The Star Online  (September 9, 2012) Accessed 12 February 2013
[5] ‘PMs visit abroad’ (November 20, 2012) Office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Official Portal Accessed 12 February 2013.
[6] Walton, Zach. ‘Malaysia Health Minister says TPP is no good.’ (August 9, 2012) WebPro News/Technology Accessed 12 February 2013.

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