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GE issues – The Trans-Pacific Partnership and our political will

Problems with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (image - 350 Campaign)
Problems with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (image - 350 Campaign)

By Reperio Simon

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries concerning a variety of matters of economic policy. Singapore is one such country on the signatory list, the others being Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the United States and Vietnam.

The TPP is fundamentally a trade deal, and Wikipedia’s entry states that:

“The TPP seeks to lower trade barriers such as tariffs, establish a common framework for intellectual property, enforce standards for labour law and environmental law, and establish an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism among signatory nations.” The goal of the agreement is to “enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, to promote innovation, economic growth and development, and to support the creation and retention of jobs.” TPP is considered by the United States government as the companion agreement to TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), a broadly similar agreement between the United States and the European Union.”

Just trade? On human rights, fair play and government policy

However, a closer scrutiny of the TPP's 29 draft chapters shows that only five deal with traditional trade issues. Most of the chapters deal with non-trade matters that affect our daily lives, such as food safety, internet freedom, medicine costs, job off-shoring, financial regulation, and more.

International trade deals in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. For smaller businesses, trade agreements allow them to find markets in faraway countries and conduct successful business there. The stability provided by trade deals, inked by governments, at times also means less ambiguity in how they deal with local governments and trade partners.

The problem arises when the impact on civilians and workers is overlooked as a result of the money to be made by big business. In the TPP, the impact on citizens in each of the 12 countries is very real. Studies have detailed how intellectual property stipulations in the TPP will very likely impact agriculture and food security, particularly in the poorer regions. The primary concern that revolve around TPP seems to be that big corporations will hold a deciding role in regional or even global economics, at the expense of ordinary citizens of member countries.

Protests on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from around the world.
Protests on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from around the world.

The TPP would even elevate individual foreign firms to equal status with sovereign nations, empowering them to privately enforce new rights and privileges, provided by the pact, by dragging governments to foreign tribunals to challenge public interest policies that they claim frustrate their expectations. These tribunals can also be established outside of the country where the dispute arises.

The tribunals would be authorised to order taxpayer compensation to the foreign corporations for the “expected future profits” they surmise would be inhibited by the challenged policies. Leaked documents from WikiLeaks revealed that all countries involved in the TPP talks – with the potential exception of Australia – have agreed to submit to the jurisdiction of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunals.

There were also suggestions that “the tribunals would be staffed by private sector lawyers unaccountable to any electorate, system of precedent or substantive appeal. Many of those involved rotate between acting as “judges” and as advocates for the investors launching cases against governments. Such dual roles would be deemed unethical in most legal systems. The leaked text does not include new conflict of interest rules, despite growing concern about the bias inherent in the ISDS system.”

Hence, the TPP is not merely another trade agreement. It has to potential to adversely affect the sovereignty of signatory nations – either in terms of our basic human rights such as the right to information, or as small businesses that risk being legally bullied by large corporations. It also matters to our everyday life, as the TPP could legally bind our government to embark on public policies – such as on environmental protection and energy – that are not in our long-term interests, but those of international corporations.

What TPP means for Singapore, politics and you

For Singapore, the two single biggest corporations are Temasek Holdings and GIC. The information pages for both Temasek and GIC concerning corporate governance indicates that the government of Singapore hold very little jurisdiction over what they do, or in so far as they do not need to be publically accountable for their investment actions, even if these are done using state resources. The two sovereign wealth funds, and subsequently their subsidiaries, are likely to be the key players and beneficiaries of the TPP.

GIC TH logosHowever, Temasek and GIC cannot sign up for the TPP on their own – TPP as a trade deal needs to be endorsed and ratified by the government of the day. In the United States, President Obama has faced opposition from his government for TPP, and has since sought to “fast-track” the agreement to overlook such oppositional voices. The Australian government, too, faced accusations of being too secretive and lacking adequate oversight and scrutiny when it came to the TPP. There have also been citizen protests within the 12 signatory countries, mostly lamenting the lack of transparency in the agreement.

Similarly for Singapore, the government cannot sign Singapore up for the TPP without a Parliament majority. As it currently stands, the ruling People’s Action Party has more than a two-third majority, which means such agreements are currently a “go” by default.

Singapore’s position on the terms of the TPP, evident in leaked documents following the 2013 Salt Lake City negotiations, shows that our government has accepted most of the chapters proposed. The specifics in each of these chapters, however, are still mostly shrouded in secrecy.

If the current government does eventually sign into law the TPP, Singapore citizens and businesses would effectively be subject to the demands of big international corporations, the likes of which include Temasek and GIC, who have the capacity to use legal enforcement to get their way, as provided for under the agreement. Successive governments, even if not under the PAP, would not be able to pull out of the TPP agreement, effectively allowing any company to take the government of Singapore to task.

Lim Hng Kiang (image - MTI)
Lim Hng Kiang (image - MTI)

However, very little of the TPP has been discusses in Parliament thus far. The latest instance was a question raised by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam about the ISDS provisions, to which Trade and Investment Minister Lim Hng Kiang gave a relatively uncommitted reply:

“The TPP commits Singapore to ensuring a stable and fair regime for foreign investors. In return, Singaporean investors in TPP countries are also ensured the same stability and fairness. The ISDS mechanism gives foreign investors the right to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against host countries to enforce this commitment. At the same time, to prevent misuse of ISDS, there are also provisions within the TPP which discourage and allow the dismissal of frivolous suits, and allow TPP governments to direct the arbitral tribunals in certain situations.

Our FTAs, including the TPP, do not restrict Singapore from adopting measures for legitimate public policy reasons, including the protection of public health and the environment.

To date, no multinational company has challenged or threatened to challenge Singapore.”

As citizens, we owe it to ourselves to demand from our Members of Parliament a better understanding of the TPP and how it can potentially affect us.

More transparency is needed, and the so-called debate around the TPP has been anything but that, both at a local and international level. Singaporeans should take the opportunity of GE2015 to post queries to your MPs, either in public or via emails, to push for greater debate in Parliament. Similarly, any opposition candidate who wishes to sit in office must also be cognisant of the issues and be ready to put the government to the test.

For the TPP is not just a simple trade agreement. It is a matter of great public concern, and citizens have a right to demand for their MPs, current or future, to take note and take action.