The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations between Malaysia and the United States, which kicked off yesterday (12 June 2006) on the island of Penang, were wrapped in secrecy even though the issues to be discussed have far-reaching implications for Malaysian citizens and Malaysia as a sovereign nation. Mind you, all this is unfolding within the larger context of the din, frenzy and exhilaration of the World Cup.
The scope of the FTA is broad. It will include tariff reductions, investment, services, intellectual property rights, government procurement, labour and the environment. The civil society Coalition on the US FTA, which led the protest, highlighted the possibility that health care costs could increase radically under the FTA as genenric manufacturers face new restrictions. There are important issues at stake that Malaysians ought to be deliberating. Indeed, the FTA will affect our lives and the future of our children.
This was why the Coalition staged a protest yesterday in front of the beach hotel where the Malaysian and American representatives were scheduled to negotiate. Remember that ordinary Malaysians and civil society were barely consulted by the Malaysian government. The protesters therefore submitted a memorandum to the Malaysian delegation expressing their concern.
Surely the FTA and the fact that there was a protest by a group of Malaysian NGOs should make good news copy, right? Apparently not, according to our media. The New Straits Times and The Star chose to abandon their social conscience and failed in their responsibility to bring this issue to the attention of the general public. Not even a whimper about this issue within the bulky pages of the two dailies. Their chosen silence was certainly not elegant; it was deafening.
theSun commendably did not fall in line with these two dailies. Instead, it published a story about the FTA and the protest in Penang on its second page under the headline, “Group disrupts FTA talks”.
If the silence of the other two major English language newspapers was 'induced' by the ‘elegant silence’ of the Abdullah administration, then it is extremely disappointing. The prime minister has once again disappointed the Malaysian people, who, since the last general election, have expected Abdullah to walk the talk, to listen to the rakyat, to be transparent and accountable.
On this issue, it appears that the mainstream media, particularly the New Straits Times and The Star, on the one hand, and the Abdullah administration, on the other, have committed serious moral negligence. The FTA has grave implications for the future of this nation and we cannot afford to be mere spectators. It should be obvious to newspaper editors, if they would only wake up, that the FTA is a different ball-game altogether – with stakes considerably higher than the World Cup.