THE SPOTLIGHT was thrown back on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) with the recent visit of US President Barack Obama to Malaysia.
It not only piqued new interest in the complex trade agreement but also revived the controversial protest against it.
The heat even had Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak coming out to reassure the people that Malaysia has much to gain by joining the US-led trade pact.
Drawn into the maelstrom is Bantah TPPA, the civil society movement that has been vocal in highlighting the negative impacts of TPPA.
Google “Bantah TPPA”, however, and one of the first things that you will find is the “secret affair” of its co-founder Anas Alam Faizli with a rising, married female politician. Other searches will rake up allegations of his foreign citizenship and Islamist alliances.
It is not surprising why the upstream oil and gas project management professional is getting all this attention.
At 34, Anas already has co-founder of non-profit groups Blindspot, Bantah TPPA and Teach For The Needs in his dossier. As one of the main spokespeople in Bantah TPPA, Anas has been at the forefront of public talks and meetings on the TPPA with various stakeholders including industry experts and the Government. And yet, he still had time to write and publish a non-fiction bestseller, Rich Malaysia, Poor Malaysians.
Crucially, he is sharp, smart-mouthed and not half bad to look at.
And you know what they say - you know you have made it only when you get trolled.
Did you get to ask President Obama about the TPPA in person?
No, I was not invited. You are talking about the town hall meeting with 100 Asean young leaders where they asked him about his favourite food, right? Obama was in Malaysia and you could have asked him about the Syrian conflict or the coup d’etat in Egypt or where is MH370 if he happened to know, and they asked him about Bakso.
So you don’t consider yourself representative of Malaysia’s “young”?
I am a part of Malaysia’s Generation Y, but even within Generation Y it is diverse, due to the advance of technology. Social media has opened up our world scope while giving us a new platform to express ourselves.
We are more exposed now and our access to information is easier, so our social consciousness and awareness is higher. Many of us 80s babies were also affected by the 1997 Economic Crisis and the political upheaval of Reformasi. Our concept of government has also changed. Unlike our parents, we no longer hold the idea that we have to be grateful to the Government or state. For my batch, although we are still beneficiaries of the NEP (New Economic Policy), we don’t feel that we owe the Government for it.
Why should we oppose the TPPA?
I believe the cost of joining the TPPA outweighs the benefits. And when we talk about costs we need to include the intangible costs like the effects on our medicine, workers and sovereignty.
I’ve mentioned the “Giant” effect many times - when global hypermarkets like Tesco and Carrefour first came to Malaysia, the Government put in control regulations to protect our small grocery shops and local supermarkets like Giant. If we sign the TPPA, we will not be allowed to take such protective measures, which might kill our local players.
Some argue that it is better to be in than out. Will we not lose out if we don’t sign the TPPA?
We have been in negotiation for almost four years and we are still unable to seal it. This shows how difficult it is to move US from their stand and they are not giving in or meeting us halfway.
We are already one of the largest trading nations in the world and our biggest trading partner is China. Even without TPPA, our trade will still prosper like always. We are already members of other trade agreements like APEC and AFTA, and have signed FTAs with various other countries. I think it will be more beneficial for Malaysia to concentrate on regional trading, rather than TPPA.
Put it this way, the US is more desperate to get the TPPA signed than we are. They want to ride on our economy, the region is going up, and their economy is stagnant. If the Government goes ahead to sign the TPPA, we urge them not to compromise on the 75 “redlines”, or issues which are detrimental to the nation, that we have put forward, such as the binding International treaties regarding patent laws; or the investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism which allows for international corporation to sue the government at an international court.
Some accuse Bantah TPPA of having Opposition links. Do you deny it?
Any issues that are out of the mainstream are considered Opposition. We are not a political group.
Bantah is an apolitical coalition that has no political interests, business interests and is not representing any specific race or quarters.
Bantah members are academicians, trade experts, law experts, health experts, environmentalists, patent experts, scholars and professionals from all sectors of the industry and society.
There have been many rumours and speculations spread about you online too. How do you deal with it?
I just ignore them.
Is it true that you are the third party in a certain politician’s divorce?
Where do you get your information on me? A lot of it is politically motivated and I don’t want to be dragged into it.
How is the support for Bantah TPPA?
The problem is the TPPA is highly technical issue, so it is difficult to get people interested. For example, on our nationwide tour last year we went to Ipoh. We distributed 50,000 leaflets there but less than 100 people turned up for our talk on TPPA.
We have met with stakeholders from all levels - from fishermen, farmers, and planters to government agencies and government ministers including the MITI minister himself and even the PM. Our main challenge is to break down the TPPA to laymen terms so that people can understand it. Obama’s visit has helped a bit though because it has gotten more people curious about the TPPA and trying to find out about it.
Can you break down the impact of TPPA for the man on the street?
The price of medicine will go up, as the sale of generic medicines will be controlled. Local services and businesses will be hit by the competition from foreign entities, forcing some to shut down. This will cause many people to lose their job.
Won’t the TPPA boost Malaysian business by improving its market competition and forcing it to restructure to global standards?
Empirical evidence shows that there have been no changes to cronyism or corruption in the countries that have signed FTA with America. Anyway, it’s a free trade agreement, how can it help you restructure. If you want to improve your competition, it is not by signing the TPPA, it’s by improving your Competition Act and having funds to encourage entrepreneurship in the country.
If the TPPA is so bad why have other countries like Taiwan and South Korea expressed interest in joining it?
We have the highest risk because we don’t have any existing FTAs with the US.
Why should an ordinary person get interested in the TPPA?
We need to hear more voices of the people on this. The PM has given assurance that he will listen - in the Bernama interview recently and in his statement at the APEC Summit Dialogue in Bali, he said he would ensure that the government take the people’s views into onsideration before signing it.
When the price of petrol went up, people went to the social media to protest. The effects of TPPA will be bigger, it may not be immediate, and you might only experience the impacts five to 10 years after we have signed it. When your children or grandchildren in the future ask you, “Where were you when we signed the TPPA?” you wouldn’t want to say, “Oh, I didn’t think it mattered then.” Surely there are some advantages for the people? If not, why is the Government so insistent on signing the trade pact? We ask that question all the time.
The Government told us that they will have a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) conducted and presented in two months, and that was in August last year. So we did our own CBA and what we saw there is a small benefit to our ceramic and textile industry. But then, those industries will be affected by TPPA rules, for example, it will regulate who we can buy yarn from.
Your book Rich Malaysia, Poor Malaysians is a bestseller in Kinokuniya and Popular Bookstore. Can you explain the title?
We are a nation of never-ending resources, but Malaysians are relatively poor. More than 90% of the wage-earning workforce does not earn much - some 80% of Malaysians are earning less than 3,000. For the past 15 years, the contribution of wages and salaries to Malaysian GDP has fluctuated between 26 to 32%.
In Singapore, this number is already as high as 42%. In other developed countries such as Korea, Canada, the UK and Japan, the corresponding number is 46%, 51%, 55% and 52% respectively.
This means Malaysians are not getting the bulk of the country’s production into their pockets! We have been stuck in upper middle income for 22 years. We will be high income based on GDP by 2020 but the disparity of the income is high. Some are saying, “But I see many people shopping at KLCC,” but how many can KLCC fit? What percentage is that out of Malaysia’s population, 30 million people?
In your book, you said free higher education is the way forward. Why?
To me it’s simple. Every time an iPhone is sold, who gets the money? Only 6% goes to US. The other 25% goes to Japan, 20% to Germany and the 15% goes to Korea. Some 3% goes to China because China does the assemblies. The parts come from the three countries mentioned. It’s because they have a good higher education, because they spend on higher education. China spends on labour. Where does Malaysia want to be?
Are you idealistic? Many young activists, especially those calling for free higher education, are attracted to socialist ideas.
When people talk about free education they like to compare our country to Cuba and Finland.
They take the ideology but to me at the end of the day, it is about context.
We need to look at the Malaysian reality, not at the other countries and ideologies. It doesn’t matter what ideology you believe in, left or right, sometimes you need to mix it up to suit the context.
Do you think we still need the New Economic Policy?
The mistake with the NEP is the “trickledown” effect it took - the NEP enriched a handful of Bumiputeras and they are expected to enrich the others. The trickledown effect did not and does not work. However, the policy has been effective in some areas, like education.
That is why I wrote in my book, “One family, one graduate.” NEP helps one Bumiputera to graduate and that graduate will ensure the rest of his or her family members also get a higher education. They are the change makers we need.
The problem is there are not enough of them. Some might say, “ What is the point of getting more Bumiputeras into university if when they graduate they make statements like Ibrahim Ali or Zulkifli Noordin?” But just imagine if Ibrahim Ali or Zulkifli Noordin did not go to university! I don’t dare imagine that!
How did you get interested in socio-economic issues and statistics?
I guess I’ve always liked numbers. And when I was young, my grandfather called me a curious baby. I love history, philosophy, politics, economics and I’ve always been interested in and public policy especially our petroleum resources and education.
I have so many questions and have always been on this search for answers. I realise now the facts and data are all out there - it is whether you are interested ins eeing them.
Like most of the statistics that we and Blindspot have presented, they actually come from government agencies and statistics department such as the Household Income Survey. I also love reading and writing, I first started writing for a fortnightly column for PC@Home in the Sunday Mail. It was about the Internet, which was booming alongside the dotcom era in 1998.
How do you de-stress?
I don’t think about it so much, there is always something you can do about (the problems). Stress is when you feel you are hitting a brick wall.
So you don’t think you are hitting a brick wall yet?
I do what I can. Some people always complain, I try to think and come up with solution.
What is your ideal Sunday?
A day of relaxing, reading books and having a nice cup of hot chocolate. I’ll also try and catch one movie.
What movies do you like?
Boring ones - historical movies and documentaries.
Do you have any historical idols?
That’s a tough question for a critical person. I’ll always find something to disagree with in the figure, I admire Nelson Mandela but I have issues with his arm struggle when he was young and that he married four times. Napoleon is another historical figure I like but again there are many other things about him I don’t agree with.
If you weren’t cracking numbers, what would you be doing?
I love to travel, and I was lucky to get the chance to travel and work abroad when I first started out, including working in Vietnam for two years.
I also spent time in the middle of the ocean - you know like in the movies, sleeping in bunks and being tumbled left and right by the ocean waves. I’ve done that. My dream is to get my own flying license and fly over the Pacific and explore the small islands there.
Do you consider yourself as a Geek?
No, I don’t crack numbers all the time. I read literature too.