“You’re selling off your rights to have your own economic policy. Our government wants to please America now, but I think if you sign the TPP that will destroy our freedom. Khazanah is dead against the TPP, but the government wants to please their friends.”
INTRODUCING TRADE AND THE TPP
Those are the words of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister in a dialogue session and Malaysians should pay attention. For context, trade agreements aim to liberalize the flow of goods and services between nations, and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is “the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s economic policy in the Asia Pacific”. In plain English, it is the most substantial trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region; the 12 participating countries including Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, and the U.S, represent almost 40 percent of global output and 25 percent of global exports.
Classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo argued that countries trading what they were most efficient at producing could boost economic growth for all – it is not a zero sum game. “Free trade is good,” said all Economics textbooks used in universities. However, what is rarely brought up is that tariff and non-tariff barriers can make all the difference in how a country reaps the gains from free trade, which is the reason negotiations take a long time and require the consideration of many stakeholders, including employees, investors and governments.
POWER TO THE CORPORATIONS
The former Prime Minister’s concerns lie deeply in how trade agreements like the TPP can force countries to surrender their sovereignty to corporations. He referred to the example of Phillip Morris International, the tobacco behemoth and maker of Marlboro, who has sued countries that tried to limit smoking for the wellbeing of their citizens.
In 2011, the company sued the Australian Government because of plain packaging laws that were implemented by parliament which they said breached a bilateral investment treaty. In 2014, Uruguay suffered the same fate for increasing the size of health warnings. The process that makes this possible is called Investor-State Dispute Settlements, which grants corporations the right to sue a foreign government. It also represents a provision in the TPP.
PAYING TO GOVERN
Legal disputes can translate into hefty costs where governments have to pay. Philip Morris International also once threatened to sue Togo, one of the ten poorest countries in the world with a GDP of $7 billion compared to the company’s net income of $80 billion. Togo backed down and surrendered control of how it wanted its cigarette health warnings to be displayed. Is it not ironic for a government to pay for their own freedom to govern its country?
New Zealand’s Trade Minister once called any opposition to the TPP “completely extreme”. It’sOurFutureNZ, a New Zealand-based activist group, argued that the TPP might exacerbate the public’s abuse of tobacco and alcohol. Consider that the New Zealand’s government will need to pay hefty legal fees in order to control regulation over a proven deadly product. Who is in control here? Is that not “completely extreme”?
BUT TRADE DEALS ARE QUITE GOOD, RIGHT?
Trade agreements have a long record of benefits that outweigh costs to society, and an even longer record of potential. In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and trade between America and Mexico has since increased by 506%. This has translated to surging FDI and productivity gains. The lowering of tariff and non-tariff barriers in ASEAN are said to have benefited businesses with a regional outreach (with even rosier predictions when the ASEAN Economic Community is complete). The Peterson Institute of International Economics estimates that the TPP might yield income gains of $295 billion.
Although the downfall of local industries, social inequality, and environmental costs all represent issues of opening up trade, it is common for governments to pursue trade agreements based on positive statistics despite the unknown fact of whether the gains will be distributed in society in ways that will benefit the poor and the rich justly – caution is imperative.
THE COSTS BEHIND THE STATISTICS
Automobile imports from Japan into the U.S aggravated job losses in Detroit, a city that was once a global automotive hub but now suffers from “urban decay” and recently declared itself bankrupt. What was then a city with job opportunities and skilled industries was reduced to a city plagued with crime and poverty for the sole reason of not being more competitive than Japanese imports. Classical economists would at this point argue that the gains reaped by Americans in Detroit as a whole would always be positive. The skills of Japanese manufacturers will “trickle down” to communities, the labour force would adapt, and more jobs would be available. But after thirty years this is hardly convincing for a city still suffering from “urban decay”.
Philippines’-based think-tank, Ibon Foundation, argued that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) would be detrimental to ordinary people while it facilitates the “aggressive foreign corporate takeovers of the region’s resources”. So, while profit-maximization makes economic sense, environmental costs should not be disregarded. Poor working conditions of workers, oil spills and the thinning ozone layer can attest to that.
Furthermore, Cambridge-based economist Ha-Joon Chang noted that open trade is not a “one-size fits all” solution for growth, as protectionism in the form of high tariffs once allowed American industries to prosper as they were protected from outside competition after World War II. Some argue in today’s context protectionism will cause countries to lose more than gain. But if Australia, a major dairy producer, gets into a trade agreement with China and makes it easier for dairy products to be imported, there is no assurance of how long it will take for the 140, 000 employees in the dairy industry to adjust.
WHOEVER BENEFITS THE MOST, PUSHES FOR TRADE (HINT:NOT YOU)
Predictions, forecasts, and estimates of trade agreement benefits can advance the interests of stakeholders who have the most to gain, including investors, corporations, consumers (who are also producers). However, if the destruction of local industries cannot be reversed, and if the benefits of foreign multinationals do not “trickle down”, and if the environment is exploited for profit, it is clear that the effects of trade agreements are not as rosy as the statistics suggest.
The TPP is in many ways now being cast under a negative light. The ascension of Malaysia into Tier 2 in the U.S Trafficking in Persons report and general secrecy of the negotiations have made the trade deal all the more suspicious to the public eye.
No matter how anti-West Tun Dr. Mahathir is (remember his “Look East” and “Buy British Last” policies and how he dislikes the International Monetary Fund) his point remains valid, Malaysia’s sovereignty is at stake. No matter what the potential of these trade deals is, the costs rarely get the attention they deserve and are typically oversimplified to stress how uncompetitive and unproductive local industries are. The lasting effects of wealth and social inequality on society need to be scrutinized. Free trade is not always good.
We need to look at things for what they are instead of what they seem to be. Should we sign on to this trade agreement? Its benefits for Malaysia will be highlighted in figures, but whether this data translates into the improved wellbeing of the people, the government and the country is an issue that puts the entire nation at risk. “Free trade is good,” university textbooks suggest.
It’s overrated, and Tun Dr. Mahathir knows it.
This time I came prepared: I had my laptop, phone, and glass bottle with me to last me throughout the whole session. Beside me was a lady with a thick posh accent. She had an A5 notebook on her lap and in her left hand was an iPhone 6 with its microphone facing the panel. She must be a reporter, I thought.
Today I see reports of the event being published. However, none of them were about the book launch and public forum organized by Gerakbudaya, the Kinokuniya of Malaysian literature. It seemed that all the news sites cared about – The Rakyat Post, Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini, Malay Mail – was what Zairil said.
To be fair, it was the juiciest thing in the whole forum: Zairil mentioned how we were living in Mahathir’s dilemma, referring to the former prime minister’s book The Malay Dilemma.
According to him, UMNO’s policies enforced the idea of Malays being lazy and how the government ALWAYS needs to help them. Because of this, Malays end up having a “perverse inferiority complex” or more simply, acting like the minority when they are actually the majority.
My favorite way to summarise his point?
“On one hand, Ketuanan Melayu; on the other, Ketakutan Melayu.”
I thought what Zairil said was important for us to know, but that meant that 99% of the others things brought up during the forum was left out. None of the news sites actually cared about the books; they only cared about what Zairil said. That’s a shame, because there were tons of great stuff that the other speakers brought up.
One example is Raja Iskandar Fareez’s analogy of the racial conflict we face today:
There are a hundred dollars on the table. The ruling class takes ninety-nine, then tells the Malays that the Chinese and Indians that they are taking away the one dollar from them. The ruling class is painting a picture that they are under threat.
Another great example was Dr Ooi Kee Beng’s insight into how the more he travelled, the more he felt that the level of him being treated as a Malaysian changed:
When I travelled to Europe, I felt the most Chinese because they didn’t want to accept you as one of them although you spoke English well. When I was in China, I felt the least Chinese because the difference of a China Chinese and a Malaysian Chinese was very clear. When I was in Singapore, I felt the most Malaysian. Although we look the same, the minute differences became very clear.
And yet, the politicians want to tell us that our identity is fixed to one race, one ethnicity.
He mentioned how stereotypes are inevitable too, and its dangers when we view people around us:
If ten Nigerians fooled you and cheated you by stealing your money, it is extremely strange for you to view the eleventh Nigerian under a positive light. We form theories from empirical evidence, from observations. But the danger of that is when we use these theories and form our own realities of the people we meet.
Not only that, another writer in the Young & Malay anthology shared how his Malay friends didn’t necessarily become less racist although they joined a Chinese school:
Why your parents send you to Chinese school, I asked. Then he said, “Supaya tak kena tipu org Cina.”
These were just some of the things which I felt should have been shared with the public by these news sites. But all news sites always have an agenda – unfortunately not everyone knows that – and it is extremely difficult to get the bigger picture… of anything in this world!
To make Malaysia better for everyone, it is not as simple as supporting either the opposition or the ruling coalition. To make Malaysia better for everyone, we as Malaysians need to understand other Malaysians at a much deeper level.
These books and forums are so beneficial because they delve into the heart of how to understand certain types of people – in this context, Malays – and all these news sites can only care about what sounds the most juiciest, what sounds most anti-government, and what sounds most viral.
From such an informative and enlightening forum about Malay culture, this Gerakbudaya event was reduced to a mere insult to UMNO and Tun Dr. Mahathir.
I imagine a person viewing one of the published reports, and feel just so bad thinking that a simplistic phrase was all they can take away from their five minutes of reading it, instead of the vast amounts of rich, insightful information that they could had, that The Malaysian Insider, Malay Mail, and Malaysiakini cut out to push whatever agendas they have.
The world is so much more than a juicy anti-establishment one-page article. It is a two hour forum about how the Malays are facing an identity crisis, and what we should do to break free from the shackles of the narratives fed to us by the ruling class, the government, and the mass media.
Be a skeptic and never stay comfortable with whatever you know, no matter how smart you think you are. To make Malaysia better, Malaysians need to become better as individuals. It’s a long way to go, but it’s worth it.
You can find the bulk of the forum’s details here, including questions and answers from each of the panel’s speakers.
The Book Launch
On Saturday I attended the launch of two books at Rumah Gerakbudaya: Young & Malay, and Merdeka For The Mind. It was launched by A. Samad Said (or better known as Pak Samad), a National Laureate for his outstanding and creative contributions to Malay Literature.
Yes, that guy with the white Confucius-like moustache-beard (a combination of both that looks like it’s one piece).
He addressed the audience in Malay, which means I couldn’t catch most of what he said because I don’t speak Malay much. But there were brief mentions of silat and his hopes for the books to be foundations of further discussion. I should really bring a Malay friend along to be my translator next time.
Amir, Zaim, I’m talking about you two.
Did you know Pak Samad joined DAP in June this year by the way? What a move to dispel the myth that DAP is a party meant for the Chinese only. Of course, it’s not just him: Zairil and Dyana are another two examples.
The Public Forum
Syerleena Rashid, councillor of Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (I have no idea what a councillor does), moderated the forum by posing insightful questions to the panel, which was made up of Wan Hamidi Hamid, Ooi Kee Beng, Zairil Khir Johari, and Raja Iskandar Fareez.
Never has the world “Malay” conjure up so much emotion. Young & Malay is a collection of essays by nine brilliant writers who share their own tales and insights on what it means to grow up in a multicultural Malaysia, she explained.
Wan Hamidi Hamid, co-editor of the book and advisor of the Impian Malaysia Initiative, was first to speak.
Q: How did you choose the other eight writers for this book?
A: Quite easy. I just chose my friends. [crowd laughs]. The project was originally thought out by Ooi Kee Beng. As we now live in times where things are getting more and more racial, we wanted to find out, “Why?” So we gathered young writers to share their tales to answer these question. They are all from different class backgrounds. But class was never a problem. It has always been about race, race, and race.
Q: Did you tell them what to write?
A: Quite easy. I told them to just write. However you grew up. Your experiences.
Ooi Kee Beng, co-editor of the book and Deputy Director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, was second. He writes a lot. Like a lot la. Check his work out at Wikibeng.com. (I know. How witty).
Q: Why did you choose this theme?
A: I wanted to work with him (Wan Hamidi Hamid) because he was in the scene of KL, a part of the new urban class. I’ve always believed people needed to write to express themselves. Read also. However if you read but don’t write, that’s constipation. People should write to know themselves. Secondly, I believe in autobiographies. We live in a time of nation-state building where the control from the centre is very strong. When we oppose that, we usually think of the alternative history. Like Singapore, it’s not all about Lee Kuan Yew.
Looking at the title, I would have called it instead “Relatively Young & Relatively Malay”. We’re all relatively something, not completely Malay or completely young. What does that even mean – completely? Even I’m relatively Malay.
Q: Why is it called Young & Malay, not Malaysian?
A: It occurred to me in the past fifty years of nation building that there has been a lot of brainwashing. The control over the young Malays is most important in this process, and we wanted to dive into this ethnic group. Besides that, there are plans to publish Young & Chinese, and Young & Indian too, but we’re not sure yet.
Zairil Khir Johari, Bukit Bendera MP and Executive Director of the Penang Institute, was third to answer questions.
Q: “It is critical for Malaysians and even more for Malays to unravel themselves from the ideological prison” This is the first line of your story in the book. September 16 is an example of this prison. Why did you write The Real Malay Dilemma?
A: In a forum in Penang, a Malay guy got up and said,”The Chinese have Chinatown, the Indians have Little India, how come we Malays don’t have Kampung Melayu? This is Malay land. We should have Kampung Melayu!”
It was strange. You don’t go to China and ask where is Chinatown, because everywhere is China. You don’t go to India and ask where’s Little India. You already in Big India.
It is a reflection of a perverse inferiority complex. You have a majority talking as though they are the minority. At the same time, you’re expressing self entitlement. Malay supremacy. It is superiority and inferiority at the same time.
You have the laws enshrining the special position of the Malays. You have the Malays in the army, stock markets, healthcare, banks, the GLCs – all of them are Malay dominated. Yet there are Malays acting like they are the minority?
That is the intuition of all Malays. There was even a Merdeka Centre survey which showed that.
On one hand, Ketuanan Melayu; the other, Ketakutan Melayu. This paradox justifies UMNO’s existence, the ruling class. It suppresses Malays, making them very dependent on crutches, on the government as Pak Lah put it.
This whole idea can be found in Tun Dr. Mahathir’s book called The Malay Dilemma. The Malaysia we know today is his image. We are all in his dilemma. Marx and Engels once said, “The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.” That is why I thought it was important to revisit and debunk this book in my article. He used all these traits in his book – defeatist, uncompetitive, don’t know how to appreciate money and time – to belittle the Malays. In every story, there is a good side and there is a bad side. The bad people in this book are the Chinese, everything the Malays are not – competitive, hardworking, enterprising.
The problem of this book was not that the scientific arguments were unsound. It was because it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When he became Prime Minister, he enforced all these ideas. This is colonial ideology. Lazy natives are a basis to justify colonisation, and this was Mahathir’s way to justify the relevance of UMNO, which were internalised and institutionalised in UMNO’s policies. The New Economic Policy is one example.
Raja Iskandar Fareez, entrepreneur and member of DAP, was the last to speak.
Q: What drove you to write about your experiences in this book?
A: First, I’d like to share an analogy:
There are a hundred dollars on the table. The ruling class takes ninety-nine, then tells the Malays that the Chinese and Indians that they are taking away the one dollar from them. The ruling class is painting a picture that they are under threat.
There was something I experienced while being in Biro Tatanegara. At first, it looked like any motivational camp from the outside. In more Malay-exclusive groups, they will be more Malay-centric. “You are Malay, this is your land, and you are under threat. The Malays have political power; the Chinese, economic power. Never fight the Malays although they are corrupt. We must stick together,” they will tell them.
I fear we are growing divided day by day. We need to go out and seek experiences, meet people, ask them to join you for football, at the mamak, instead of just sticking to the community you know.
I’d like to share another story. There was a Malay in the restroom, and I was washing my hands in my Bersih t-shirt. He approached me and said, “A Melayu wearing a Bersih t-shirt? But I thought only the Chinese go!” Then he continued to ramble, and after some time then asked what was Bersih’s agenda. Proudly, I showed the back of my t-shirt which contained the four things we fight for. He replied, “Oh, but don’t you know our government protects Islam and Malay rights?” I left. It was already 12 a.m., and I would have told him patiently about the ruling class, and how they want you to believe their narratives.
It is all these experiences that drove me to write what I wrote in Young & Malay.
Gerakbudaya regularly organises public forums and book launches. I’d call the place the Kinokuniya of Malaysian Literature. The bungalow is located along Jalan Bukit 11/2, Petaling Jaya, and you can follow them here on their Facebook page.
“Can you write CM’s speech for Oxford?” he said while on the phone.
I assume he was referring to Lim Guan Eng. Before that, he shook my hand and being well excited I paced back and forth while waiting for him to get off his phone.
“Uh not really. Still got time la”
Today I met Zairil. He’s the Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, and he is the Executive Director of the Penang Institute, a state-funded public policy think tank based in Penang. He spoke at a book launch at Rumah Gerakbudaya today, which I will write about tomorrow.
It was really easy talking to him, and it felt like he was not holding anything back – a rare trait in the average person today. We talked about how to write well, his life as a generalist, and how debating Shahrul “Salted Egg” Hamdan was an insult to him. Ham-dan is salted egg in Cantonese, and that’s how I always said it in my head whenever I see his name.
Being a close follower of his blog, I noticed how everything felt structured and clear, as though the reader can be brought through each step of his thinking process to send a complicated point across.
He told me, “Practice makes perfect. I know it sounds cliché.”
“It is damn cliché man.”
“Yeah, but it’s true! You know why or not? When you write, you are forced to outline your thoughts in an orderly manner.”
But that was not the only thing. Having studied information systems engineering, he credited the progress he made in writing and thinking to being an engineering student – specifically logical thinking – which I realised is something I am not exposed to being an Economics and Finance student.
Other than that we talked about his recent debate with UMNO’s Youth Shahrul Hamdan in Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit organised by UKEC. I had watched the entire debate and we managed share our opinions about it.
“Is he really the rising star of UMNO?” I asked.
“My friends in BN tell me they call him KJ’s blue-eyed boy; people in UMNO love him too.”
“For real? But he was comparing Malaysia’s education to Ghana and Honduras!”
“I know right! I knew that he got a 1st class from LSE, so I was like “Wow I better get prepared”. After hearing some of his arguments, I feel so insulted.”
“He was also totally deflecting the issue of corruption too,” I added.
During the debate, Shahrul mentioned how corruption was a problem everywhere in the world and never tackled the issue of the 1MDB scandal head on. In hindsight, he said what any BN politician would say: “Look where we have come”, “Tak ada ekonomi yang perfect”, “Our GDP is strong”. If you watch plenty of BN politicians talk, they all usually talk about how the government is doing its job, and never addressing the most pressing issues – Ringgit, 1MDB, racism – head on.
“You know, if I was him I would tackle the issue the head on. The whole crowd would be cheering for you man!” he exclaimed.
“Do you think it is like taboo to talk about the scandal in BN?”
And at this point I forgot how the conversation went on. But the lasting impression is that he’s down to earth la. Like that guy in school you can talk shit with, but always believed strongly in a few important things. For Zairil it was good governance, decentralisation of power, and writing as a way of thinking. Nice to meet you man.
After a whole day of being a tourist of KL, I feel stoned, bloated, tired. Not sure if it was the eating all day long, or the deadly combination of 7 types of curries with a refreshing Teh Ais to end the meal. I’m lactose intolerant, that’s why la.
After taking the best dump ever, I went back to the KL Sentral KTM station at 7 p.m. and saw that this guy was drinking out of a juice box.
How long has it been since I last brought a juice box anywhere?
My last memory of it was in primary school. Mum used to pack it for me for my lunches because she wants me to eat healthy home cooked food, free of the various amounts of preservatives and colourings.
I studied in SJK(C) Lick Hung; it was apparently the best Chinese school at that time. Why? Maybe because they put us through shit la – caning, more caning, and being embarrassed in front of the whole school during assemblies and PA announcements. All of this so that they can move up the ranks and attract even more students
and their parents’ generous donations. It made me tough, and I was rewarded with skills a typical Chinese student has (or “Asians” according to most Americans because they cannot be bothered to acknowledge Asia is a continent, not a country).
But I never felt educated.
Sure I achieved the A*s and all but it is all so superficial. Life would be easier if it was all about achieving A*s, but it’s not – A*s cannot solve all our problems. I did, however, learn how to take people’s shit. Bullies, teachers, parents. Then I slowly realised the point is to know who you are and what you want. Heck, even being in Taylor’s College didn’t change that (but it was part of the process la). Most people carry on with their “work” thinking they’re going somewhere, but never thought for one second why they were doing it or whether it was the “work” they wanted to do.
Being kept busy never guaranteed us going in the correct direction. At the same time I would say being kept busy makes it slightly easier when we find things we don’t like doing. Don’t like? Cross it out. Move on. Try something new.
We are all a work in progress anyway. Chill la. Think we should be fine, so long as we keep thinking…
Like the 9-to-6 PwC (People working constantly) Fresh Grad who sat opposite me. With his earphones plugged in. With his red leather journal open, he was in deep thought, expressing ideas in neat bullet points with the mechanical pencil in his right hand. Pilot. 0.7, I think.