FTA with Australia possible by mid-2011

KUALA LUMPUR: The free trade agreement (FTA) talks between Australia and Malaysia are likely to be concluded by mid-2011.

The eighth round of FTA talks between Australian and Malaysian officials ended last Friday in Canberra.

According to Australia Malaysia Business Council national president Larry Gould, both countries are likely to come to an agreement in the middle of next year.

“The general mood among officials from both countries is that there is an agreement to move forward with the talks, which will be built on the Asean-Australia-New Zealand FTA (AANZFTA),” he told StarBiz.

Gould said discussions for a bilateral FTA commenced five years ago but paused to give the wider AANZFTA precedence.

The AANZFTA as well as the Asean-China FTA and the Asean-India FTA’s component covering trade in goods came into operation at the beginning of this year.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, at a joint press conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said on Wednesday that a bilateral FTA with India would come into operation by next July and could achieve two-way trade worth US$15bil by 2015.

“With the AANZFTA coming into operation, we felt that now was the appropriate time to pick up on the negotiations,” Gould said, adding that three rounds had been held this year including the just concluded talks in Canberra.

He said there were issues to be ironed out and in general, discussions centred around the services sector as well as manufacturing.

Last week, Australian Trade Commission officials said the Australian government was keen to further relations in services, especially in the area of financial services.

Gould pointed out that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to Malaysia this Sunday after the East Asia Summit in Hanoi further underscored the importance of not just this country but the region for Australia.

“This is only her second trip out of Australia following the general elections and she wants to continue to build on the strong relations between both countries,” Gould observed.

He said issues such as the 30% bumiputra equity policy, which was reaffirmed by Najib at the recent Umno general assembly after being left unclear following a spate of public-sector reforms, were not an obstacle to further investment by Australians.

Malaysia Australia Business Council chairman Michael Halpin said the current Malaysian administration had gone “much further than what we’ve expected” in helping business grow.

“Malaysian officials are much more approachable and whenever there are issues it’s very easy to get to them, and the issues are also resolved quite quickly,” he said.

Halpin said this helped when Australian companies debated on whether to invest here as they could get third-party endorsements from Australian companies with operations here.

He said the changes taking place in the country with the reforms to bring about a high-income nation status by 2020 and in particular the emphasis on human capital development meant opportunities for both sides.

“Australia is keen to get involved on a win-win basis, bearing in mind the changing world,” Halpin said.

Halpin and Gould said the services sector was one area in which both countries could benefit. “Upskilling the Malaysian workforce could be the route to a bigger Asean market,” Halpin said.

Ultimately, Gould said Australia needed to be in a trade bloc in its region. “My belief is that Australia need to work with her neighbours and support them,” he said.

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