by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 8 December 2015

I am usually very keen to take part in discussions about the benefits and challenges of trade liberalisation. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is one of the steps towards further liberalisation and I have been taking part in many events with those who oppose it lately.

But I am losing steam very fast and I have been asking myself many times if it is actually worth the effort to debate the TPP critics.

The anti-TPP activists have been campaigning for many years. I remember reading some material from them back in mid 2013. The text of the TPP was released on 5 October 2015 but they have been opposing since mid 2013. That means, at the very least, they have been opposing the TPP more than two years before they even know what the TPP is. In other words, when they started campaigning against it, they did not even know what it is.

To make it easier to understand, let’s turn that into a political analogy. If someone comes to you and said that Party A is bad news, a rational person would react by asking for the evidence. If the only evidence is based on hearsay and assumptions, it is very likely that the person is talking from ideology and sentiment instead of rational thinking. It is also likely that he is a supporter of Party B trying to badmouth Party A.

That is exactly what has happened to the TPP. If anyone pretended to know the content of the TPP before 5 October 2015, he is either a bomoh or an ideological activist. There is no other way to explain the pretentious behaviour of claiming to know something that was not even released yet at that time.

The reality is, those who have been campaigning against the TPP are mostly ideological anti-liberalisation activists. They believe that a paternalistic government must protect us forever because we will never grow up as strong adults. Their opposition to liberalisation is driven by the ideological belief that Malaysians are too weak and too stupid, and therefore they as the clever ones must protect us from competition.

Over the last few months I did try to engage with some of them. But I found them impossible to engage with because they jump from one point to another without any desire to take in answers to the issues they complain about. And they will dismiss any answer you provide, accusing you of not knowing enough because only they have the superior ability to grasp complex issues.

They usually start by saying the TPP was negotiated in secret and therefore it must be bad. It does not matter how many times you explain to them that it is normal practice to negotiate the final deal before making it public. They are not interested in the answer and before you know it, they would jump to a dozen more complaints, all of which are plucked from the internet way before the true text is released.

If you tell them that the complaints are not in the actual text, they will tell say it may not be in now, but there is no guarantee it cannot be inserted in the future. How do you talk to someone who refuses to accept the fact but is very quick at bringing into the conversation all future possibilities? Since there is no guarantee that driving a car is safe, should we ban all cars?

The main point here is that their opposition is driven by blind anti-liberalisation ideology. It does not matter that two cost benefits analyses have been released to say that the TPP would bring many benefits to the rakyat. They would scramble to find faults with the studies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they will soon accuse the two studies as biased just so that they can ignore the data and stick to their own opinions. When it comes to ideology, data and facts are irrelevant.

Having said that, some of the complaints against the TPP deserve to be analysed further. There are concerns about the potential impacts of the extended copyright and patent protection on pricing of the protected items. Many parties have expressed concerns about the potential risks behind the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS), the government’s ability to conduct public health measures, impact on labour rights, domination of big powers especially the United States, and so on.

The concerns should indeed be addressed by our government. The rakyat deserves to be told the real picture. Unfortunately, and I choose my words carefully here, the government has been very lousy at providing explanations on these issues. After five years of negotiation, we see today a government that seems to be clueless how to conduct the necessary public education exercise.

All the burden seems to be placed on Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed and his Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). This is wrong because the TPP was negotiated by the government as a whole, involving 16 agencies. By right they should work together and pool resources to educate the public.

But we only see silence from almost all the other agencies. In fact some, including government-linked companies that were represented in the negotiation, are publicly hinting that the TPP should be rejected even thought they were involved at the negotiation stage. If this is not incoherence, should we call it irresponsibility?

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive of IDEAS

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