Much of the negotiations surrounding the TPPA have been shrouded in secrecy, and there has been little media analysis even though the stakes are high. Lim Mah Hui discusses what the TPPA all about.

On 14 June, news portal Malaysiakini reported that Malay Economic Action Council representatives walked out of a meeting with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti) because the latter was unwilling to disclose details of the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Miti has been engaged in negotiations on the TPPA for many months and the government is inclined to sign the agreement.

To a lay person, TPPA, BITs and FTAs are dry and arcane abbreviations that do not interest us. Yet, they have a serious impact on our lives. So what are they and why should we bother about them?

BITs stands for Bilateral Investment Treaties and FTAs for Free Trade Agreements, while TPPA is a specific FTA that is currently under negotiation among a number of Pacific Rim countries, including Malaysia. All these are bilateral or regional agreements signed between countries. The US has been pushing hard for countries to sign such agreements with it.

The current furore over the TPPA arises from a fear that these treaties and agreements may contain provisions on such issues as investment and intellectual property rights that could have adverse consequences on a signatory country’s national policymaking capacity.

For example, the tighter and more monopolistic intellectual property regimes imposed by such agreements could prevent Malaysia from producing cheaper generic versions of essential medicines patented by the major pharmaceutical corporations.

In this article, however, I shall focus only on the investment aspects of these agreements.

In the heyday of economic and trade liberalisation, many countries signed bilateral investment and trade agreements with each other to promote trade and investments. There are over 3,000 BITs in existence. The purpose of BITs (as well as the investment chapters in FTAs) is to promote and protect the investments that one country has in another country.

However, it is now recognised that the first-generation BITs are one-sided – they protect the interests of private investors at the expense of the public interest. Many governments that have signed such treaties without understanding the legal implications are now paying for the mistakes.

Over the last decade, the number of cases private investors have brought against governments under BITs has risen over 500% – from 69 cases in 1999 to more than 370 cases today. Many of these suits involve billions of US dollars in settlement and constrain the capacity of governments to act in the public interest. The following examples illustrate the problems.

Tobacco company Philip Morris has brought an investor-state claim against the Uruguayan government for requiring the company to display graphic health warnings on its cigarette packs.

Similarly, it has sued the Australian government for billions of dollars for breach of the Hong Kong-Australia BIT after the government passed a law that required plain packaging for cigarettes. The company argued that these requirements violated its trademark and intellectual property, and hence its investment rights.

In Peru, Renco, a US smelting company, sued the Peruvian government under the US-Peru FTA and is demanding $800m (RM2.6bn) in compensation for failure to grant a third extension of its environmental remedy obligations.

Renco’s smelting site in Peru is among the 10 most polluted sites in the world and it was reported that 99 per cent of children in this area suffer from lead poisoning.

Malaysia should learn from Peru’s experience and be most cautious about signing any BITs or FTAs that a company like Lynas may later use against it.

Closer to home in Indonesia, in June 2012, Churchill, a UK mining company, sued the Indonesian government for $2bn because the local government in Busang (East Kalimantan) had revoked the concession rights held by a local company in which it had invested.

There are two models of BITs – the Freedom of Investment (FOI) model and the Investment for Sustainable Development (ISD) model.

The FOI model assumes all investments are good and promote development; hence governments should completely liberalise all investments. Often, this not only runs counter to public interest but provisions in BITs are often in conflict with the constitutions of host countries and undermine their sovereignty, as South Africa has discovered.

The ISD model is more selective, recognising that the effects of foreign direct investment (FDI) on host countries are not all positive and any benefits are not necessarily automatic; thus regulations are needed to balance the interests of investors and the public interest.

Malaysia would do well to learn from South Africa’s experience with BITs.

In the early 1990s, South Africa in its eagerness to attract FDI and to join the international economic community, signed about 15 BITs, mainly with European countries.

It soon discovered there was no relation between signing BITs and inflow of FDI. Worse still, it was later confronted with several legal challenges brought by private investors under various BITs.

In 2008, it reviewed all the BITs signed and found many problems with the nature of these bilateral agreements. These include:

* The overly broad definition of investments to cover not only direct investments but also franchises, licences, intellectual property and all types of financial instruments, including derivatives;

* The “fair and equitable” treatment clause has been used to challenge the host government’s rights to enact regulations to protect the public interest; and

* The definition of “expropriation” includes not only direct but also indirect expropriation that can cover any policy measures that affect potential and future profits of investors.

The South African government was most concerned with investor-state dispute provisions in BITs that provided precedence of narrow commercial interests over the host country’s national interest.

The review also revealed weaknesses in the international arbitration process.

Investors sue governments in international tribunals whose proceedings are not transparent and are riddled with conflicts of interest. Many of the judges who sit on the tribunals are also lawyers who sometimes represent investors who sue governments.

After several years of discussion and review of BITs, with the help of international experts, the South African government has concluded the following:

* It would review all first-generation BITs with a view to renegotiating or exiting them;

* It would refrain from signing new BITs except in cases of compelling circumstances; and

* It would strengthen domestic legislation to include relevant provisions of BITs to protect foreign investors without sacrificing sovereignty. Important issues involving matters of national security, health and environment will be carved out as legitimate exceptions to investors’ protection.

All decisions in respect of BITs will be made at inter-ministerial level and not just by one ministry.

Malaysia is one of the few countries that successfully imposed capital controls and implemented counter-cyclical fiscal policies during the Asian financial crisis that contributed to its rapid economic recovery. But such policy options for capital controls may not be available if Malaysia signs the TPPA that conforms to the US model.

The TPPA is much more restrictive than the World Trade Organization rules governing trade and investments such that even the International Monetary Fund is concerned about the lack of policy space for countries signing the TPPA to introduce safeguard measures to meet balance-of-payments problems.

Malaysia should learn from South Africa’s experience. We call on our parliamentarians to raise and debate this issue in Parliament, to review all existing BITs and FTAs to which Malaysia is a party, and to not allow government authorities to rush into signing any new treaties such as the TPPA that could endanger Malaysia’s interests.

Lim Mah Hui is a city councillor in Penang and senior adviser to the South Centre in Geneva. He has 30 years’ experience as a professor and international banker. This article was first published in The Edge Malaysia, June 24-30 issue.

This article first appeared in The Edge, 24-30 June 2013 issue.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Trade treaty like TPPA are actually OPEN FOR LOBBYING, AKA bribery(?)

    So called “refuse to sign”, is depends on the price(?) When the price is correct,correct,correct, I will no hold my breath seeing (the mainstream media) change their tone.

  2. Utusan Konsumer has a good write-up on this. FTAs are corporate colonialism according to Vandana Shiva, and this agreement is the worst. It allows national laws to be subverted, and even the contents of food and medicine to be kept secret from governments. None of this would happen without the traitors in all countries who collude with big buisness.

  3. You can see BN is pro-business gomen and not like anti-business talibanistic gomen of certain states. BN gomen continuously explore business opportunities for all Malaysians and open the door to export markets.

    TPPA is win win for us and the foreign countries. Malaysia as reputable trading country is the result of hard works by BN since merdeka. Who say TPPA is the US tool to conquer Malaysia is a real fool.

    Grow up @ross and do some businesses before shooting. Read some economics books it is good for you. By the way it is quite expensive, about RM100 each book and in English too.

  4. Ultimately, the effectiveness of a BIT is manipulated by the individual soveriegn nation by default. Companies can sue goverments on the pretext of the agreement has been broken but often collecting on a courts decision is an exercise in futility.

  5. Anil, you are trying to construct a “cause” and “consequences” relationship in TPPA. That was good but the problem is you got very little information about TPPA. You are now speculating, scaremongering and keep spinning even your team already won the supermajority in the state.

    Anil, you are so imaginative. You can even imagine so many consequences when you do not know a single thing about the TPPA (the cause).

    p/s: A little faith brightens a rainy day. Malaysia in a safety hands of BN since merdeka.

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