Arguably the most important issue to test Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stranglehold on power is his enthusiastic backing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the omnibus trade pact between the 12 Pacific Rim nations that is one of the capstones of US President Barack Obama’s time in office.
The TPP, as it is known, could destroy the elaborate patronage system put together over decades to perpetuate the ruling national coalition in power, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur. The pact, however, may not come up in the US congress, where it must be ratified, until after the November 2016 general election. Malaysia has time to act on it as well.
The prime minister has been impervious to attempts to remove him for more than a year and a half as major scandals have festered in his administration. Najib had been close to Obama, golfing with him in Hawaii in January. That apparently has been ended by sensational stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about family wealth in US homes and the 1MDB machinations and by US embassy warnings of widespread corruption. He at least partly owed his relationship with the president to his energetic support for the trade pact in Southeast Asia.
TPP Provisions Call for Open Government Tenders
Ironically, the TPP contains provisions that directly threaten the way the Malaysian government does business, and particularly the way it has long steered government contracts to cadres of the United Malays National Organization, which Najib heads as president. He owes much of his invulnerability to the loyalty he is reported to buy from the 192 division chiefs and others in UMNO via contracts and outright bribes.
In repeated interviews, Najib has said Malaysia must be a party to the TPP because its economy is heavily geared towards trade and that although the agreement poses challenges, the benefits will outweigh the cost. He now must ask the parliament to ratify the agreement, as must each of the nations before it becomes a working agreement.
For instance, Chapter 15 of the document, according to the United States Special Trade Representative, says that “TPP parties share an interest in accessing each other’s large government procurement markets through transparent, predictable, and non-discriminatory rules.”
Individual governments must make project specifications public in a timely manner to allow sufficient time for suppliers to obtain tender documents and to submit bids. That gives governments all the way around the Pacific Rim the opportunity to bid on Malaysian infrastructure and other government contracts.