Economic Update

Moving ahead with Malaysia's trade pacts

Malaysia | 24 Jun 2014

Malaysia’s leadership is forging ahead with plans for entry to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) despite domestic concerns that the multilateral trade agreement will negatively impact some domestic sectors and international concerns over delays in its progress.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said in May the agreement would be ratified by the end of this year, though only on “Malaysia’s terms” with the content being more important than the deadline, he noted.

This has led to some speculation that regional and bilateral trade deals may give Malaysia more tailored and long-term benefits than sweeping global arrangements, even though the changes are taking place on a smaller scale.  

Compromises

The free trade agreement (FTA), which involves 12 countries including Australia, Brunei, Canada, the US and Vietnam, would strengthen Malaysia's ties with the wider world with the aim of expanding trade and market access in terms of economic and investment growth, said Razak.

His remarks came after anti-TPP rallies were held in the region, in response to a visit by US President Barack Obama in April. Opposition leaders in Kuala Lumpur warned that Washington would use pressure tactics to get Kuala Lumpur's approval for the deal.

“The US might offer security enhancement as a trade-off if Malaysia compromises on its red lines in the TPP. The US regime has always used trade and security hand-in-hand to twist arms of nations to accept its economic hegemony,” Parti Sosialis Malaysia treasurer A Sivarajan said.

Malaysia is reluctant to accept changes to its government procurement policies that could result from the deal, while domestic critics say it will impact on equality initiatives such as pro-ethnic Malay affirmative action introduced after 1969 race riots.

“[Joining the proposed TPP agreement] may mean disruption of our effort to reduce national tension caused by economic disparities,” the former Malaysian Prime Minister and recently-appointed chairman of the automotive manufacturer Proton, Mahathir Mohamad, told the Nikkei Asian Review. He added that retaining some trade barriers was necessary to protect local industries. “To ask us to compete with fully developed countries, that is a task that is almost impossible.”

Proponents of the TPP say it will help dismantle non-tariff barriers and enforce best practice, while obliging countries with closed economies to tackle domestic monopolies. But even its supporters claim its free trade principles are being diluted as divergent economies such as those of Australia and Vietnam demand changes.  

Small may be best

Critics have suggested that potential signatories to the TPP, such as Malaysia, would benefit more from focusing on smaller-scale, bilateral or regional free trade agreements rather than joining global initiatives which include economies on the scale of the US and Japan.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said in May that the time spent on negotiating “mega” trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be better spent consolidating more bilateral trade agreements.

“Whether or not countries wish to pursue mega-regional agreements, in the meantime they should simply pick the lowest tariff among their myriad agreements and adopt this single measure. The solution would also apply to many non-tariff barriers, and would have clear economic benefits, in addition to furthering the cause of global free trade,” Jayant Menon, lead economist for trade and regional co-operation at ADB, told Emerging Markets.

In this vein, the Malaysian and Turkish governments signed an FTA in April that is expected to boost trade to $5bn by 2018 by providing preferential market access for Malaysian goods entering the Turkish market and vice-versa. It also included key bilateral conditions such as reducing the tariff on crude palm oil exports to 20% from 31%.

Under the provisions of the FTA, which took several years to negotiate, Malaysia and Turkey will co-operate in areas encompassing small and medium-sized enterprises, halal-related areas, agriculture and food industry, research development and innovation, health, energy, e-commerce, and automation.

Malaysia already has existing free trade agreements with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia and New Zealand.  

Export growth

Such preferential agreements have helped Malaysian exports hit a sweet spot this year, accelerating at their fastest pace in four years to nearly 19% year-on-year (y-o-y) growth in April and charging ahead of analysts’ expectations.

This marked the 10th consecutive month of expanding exports, following five successive months of contraction. The institute said this was due to a sharp rise in the shipments of electrical and electronic (E&E) products (32% share of total exports) and commodity (19% share) during the month. At a regional level, observers also point out the advantages of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes Malaysia and the other nine members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations.

“While the TPP aims to be a high-quality preferential trade agreement… the RCEP… sets the bar low and accepts that countries will reduce trade barriers at different rates – especially among less-developed members – and also makes limited demands for regulatory harmonisation,” wrote the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in April 2013.

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