by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star Online 2 September 2015

THE last round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement negotiation took place in Hawaii in late July. Trade Ministers from the countries involved, including our own Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, attended the meeting.

The meeting concluded with a ministerial statement, saying they have made “significant progress” and that they “will continue work on resolving a limited number of remaining issues, paving the way for the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations”.

I recently spoke on a panel with Malaysia’s Chief Negotiator Datuk J. Jayasiri, and he suggested that the negotiation could be concluded soon, maybe as early as this month.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia the opposition to TPP remains strong. There is still no cohesive and concerted effort to convince the people that a clearer set of rules governing our trading system is good for the country and for the people.

The business community here has been very quiet. It is as if they think they can get what they want simply by lobbying the government, ignoring the people.

Before setting up IDEAS in 2010, I lived in Britain for 18 years. While I was there, I actively followed public debates around various policy issues. I saw how businesses actively engaged the public to push for reform.

There, businesses through their trade associations and lobbying organisations actively speak to the media.

They regularly organise events to tell the public their concerns. They are not afraid to lay down their suggestions for the public to debate and consider.

They work with think tanks to conduct studies on particular issues. They support civil society organisations campaigning for reform and improvements. And they meet with political parties and political leaders of all sides to voice their opinions.

I also observe that businesses in other countries like Germany, Holland, America and Australia do the same.

In short, businesses in more developed countries know that in order to shape public policy, it is not enough to just talk to the government. They must actively go out there and challenge the anti-market sentiment, because politicians usually respond to public pressure.

In more developed countries, businesses know that politicians very rarely lead, because politicians are essentially followers of public sentiment. They gauge public sentiment and they try their best to reflect those sentiments in order to gain support.

But when the same businesses come to developing countries, such as Malaysia, they suddenly change their views on politicians and change their strategies on how to shape public policy. They don’t engage the public and they don’t speak up.

Instead they request private meetings with politicians and senior civil servants. Somehow, on the flight from Washington DC, London, Berlin, or Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, they transform from believing in the power of public pressure to believing in the benevolence of the dictator.

It is as if they think politicians here are different from politicians over there. But this is nothing but a myth.

The reality is, politicians are just the same. They respond to public pressure, and the best way to create sustainable permanent betterment of public policy is by convincing the public first.

Or at the very least by convincing the public parallel to convincing the policy makers.

The TPP has suffered from this failure of the business community to engage the public. It is frustrating that we at IDEAS are almost the only voice among civil society calling for liberalisation and the opening up of our economy.

Frankly, I have no idea why I continue doing it when the people who would benefit from it, i.e. businesses, seem not to care.

We only see huge public pressure against free trade, and no one strategically countering that pressure.

What the business community tend to do is to talk among themselves rather than going out there to persuade and debate the “other side”. And then they pretend to be curious about why is there so much misunderstanding about free trade.

The answer is pretty obvious. It is because they have not actively gone out there to provide the people with real information about why it is good for the common folks if businesses flourish.

If there is one lesson that can be learnt from the TPP saga, it is that the business community must very quickly change their strategy when dealing with public policy and policy-makers. It is no longer enough to just talk to those in Putrajaya.

They need to do what they do in Washington DC, in London, in Berlin, in Canberra and so on. They need to engage the public and they need to support the growth of pro-market advocates.

I look forward to the day when there are more organisations like us, complementing our work and filling in where we are weak. Learning from the TPP saga, that is the true opportunity that can be seized by businesses.

On August 19, 1961, when delivering a dinner speech, our Bapa Kemerdekaan Tunku Abdul Rahman said, “If the government thinks it could run all the trades and industries in Malaya it would have done so right from the beginning. It does not have the business experience or know-how to want to undertake business directly itself … The Alliance Government will not change its policy of encouraging free enterprise because we know what is good and what is not good for the country.”

This important reminder from the great Tunku has been forgotten today, and I long for the day when people in the business community start standing up for the Tunku’s rightful vision.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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