KUALA LUMPUR: Former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz has cautioned against politicising a proposed trade agreement, as it is important for Malaysia in light of changing trends in world trade.
Speaking on the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Rafidah said Malaysia will be assuming an important role if it was ratified.
“Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, I seem to detect politicising of sub-regional and plurilateral initiatives,” she told attendees at HELP University’s second Conversation on National Issues talk titled “The Future of Malaysia” today.
Rafidah gave the example of the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), which she said would have benefited Malaysia in terms of exports in several industries, including textile and garments, rubber-based industries and automative components.
The agreement among Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States was signed on Feb 4, 2016 but had failed to be ratified and did not take effect.
“Now with RCEP, I hope it’s not politicised again. That’s one way of us finally having our position in this big giant (region),” she said.
She said the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) would be the biggest trade bloc in the world.
RCEP is being proposed among all 10 member states of Asean – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – and six FTA partners – China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Rafidah said politicising RCEP by speaking on concerns about government sovereignty may stifle Malaysia’s opportunity in successfully joining the trade bloc.
“It will stifle us. Other people can come and take our place. They can do without us,” she said.
On the calls to boycott Malaysian palm oil by a trade organisation in India recently, Rafidah said this was not the “end of the world”.
She said Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was only speaking about the injustice to Kashmir when he made his remarks about the Indian-Pakistani conflict at the United Nations General Assembly recently.
“I think there will also be an uproar in Malaysia if somebody says something in that context. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. That’s where communication comes in.”
She said there was a need to “mend fences” and advised the government not to “add fuel to the fire”.
“You have to talk to them about palm oil, to ask them to keep the palm oil separate (from the political issue),” she said.
Rafidah also said the scrutiny against Malaysian palm oil was due to a more vigilant world market.
“It’s not that they hate palm oil. The marketplace has become more vigilant about sustainability. Anything that we exploit, that has got to do with natural resources (and it) must be done according to good stewardship.
“This means they have to be assured that your palm oil is not grown on land that is slashed and burned,” she said.
Rafidah said the Malaysian private and public sectors must understand the importance of sustainability to world consumers.
“We have to always be outward-looking and balancing domestic interests with what is going on externally,” she said.
She cited climate change and the scarcity of resources as global megatrends that will affect the country in the coming future.
Another megatrend, she said, was the shift of global economic powers.
“This is not about who’s going to be more powerful economically, it’s about the whole global axis being realigned towards Asia Pacific – China, Asean countries, India.”
She said Malaysia was also included in this realigned axis of future global economic powerhouses. “If we don’t buck up, we will just be a ‘dot’ that people kick around.”
Among the other global megatrends, Rafidah said, were the demographic shift, accelerating urbanisation and the rise in technology.
“If we do not address these, Malaysia will not have a future. We will have a bleak future,” she said.