President Obama struggles to push trade pact with Malaysia

April 28, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday that he and US President Barack Obama had agreed to upgrade bilateral relations but suggested that his country remains far from ready to sign a US-led trade pact due to domestic “sensitivities.”

Obama’s visit to Malaysia follows his swing through Japan, where he failed to clinch a trade deal key to the US “rebalancing” back to Asia. Such a deal would have injected momentum into the delayed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

Najib’s ambition to bring Malaysia into Obama’s flagship trade plan has been undercut by the resurgent influence of traditionalists within his own ruling party following a weak election showing last year.

Early this month, a Malaysian cabinet minister was reported as saying the country was a long way from being able to sign a TPP deal and that the priority should be on economic integration within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.

Najib said Malaysia was committed to free trade and denied that Washington was “bullying” the Southeast Asian nation into joining the controversial pact.

“We are working around the sensitivities and challenges which I alluded to in my discussions with President Obama,” Najib told a joint news conference with the US leader in the administrative capital of Putrajaya. “He fully understands our domestic sensitivities and we will sit down and try to iron this out with the intention of trying to work out a deal in the near future.”

Obama said that domestic opposition to trade deals wasn’t surprising and that the United States was willing to be flexible on particularly sensitive areas, such as prices of life-saving medicines that critics say will jump in countries like Malaysia under the TPP.

“There’s never been a trade deal in which somebody’s not going to at some point object because they’re fearful of the future or they’re invested in the status quo,” Obama said.

Protesters briefly disrupted Obama’s talk later in the day at a town hall-style meeting with young Malaysians at a universityReuters