KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of Malaysians protested against plans to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Saturday, just days before parliament is due to open a debate on the free trade pact.
Many of the demonstrators congregated in central Kuala Lumpur were from the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which fears that the South East Asian country could lose control of its economy if it enters the 12-nation pact with the United States.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has argued that Malaysia, which relies on exports of commodities, minerals and electronics, cannot afford to stay out of a trade zone whose participants account for 40 percent of the global economy.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s parliamentary majority should ensure the pact gets approval, but Najib can ill-afford any increase in his unpopularity as he seeks to fend off a financial scandal at a state-owned fund.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing, and leaders of Islamist party PAS have been less critical than others over the controversy at the fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, and over how nearly $700 million came to be deposited into the prime minister’s personal account.
Opponents of the TPP fear the pact would compromise national interests and favor foreign multinational companies.
In a bid to reassure ethnic Malay action groups, International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed has said affirmative action policies for the country’s ethnic majority would be safeguarded.
Critics have also argued that small and medium sized enterprises — providing 65 percent of jobs — will be among the worst hit if the trade deal were to take effect.
“This is not a racial issue,” said Salahuddin Ayub, deputy president of Amanah, a party that splintered from PAS. “When we talk about small and medium enterprises, everyone is affected.”
Concerns have also been raised about a possible steep hike in medicine prices due to intellectual property clauses that would clamp down on the sale of generic drugs and benefit big pharmaceutical companies.