Introducing Mr Firdaos Rosli, the Director of Economics, Trade, and Regional Integration (ETRI) from the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia. This non-profit think-tank situated in Persiaran Sultan Salahudin, Kuala Lumpur whereby a notable landmark, the Tugu Negara is situated. Mr Firdaos Rosli, a prominent researcher, shares with us the visions he has acquired as he rose to his current position in ISIS, insights on his profession, along with his views regarding global issues.


Brief History in Time

Mr Firdaos Rosli began as a Senior Analyst in Economics before getting promoted to Fellow of Economics. Since early April this year, he has been directing the Division of ETRI. 2017 marks his seventh year in ISIS.  Mr Firdaos delves into his employment history as he shares with us his story of being a government servant for almost 11 years, in which he served the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. It was a period of his life where he asked a lot of ‘whys’ instead of ‘whats.’

Back when he was a student in university, Mr Firdaos did not have a specific interest in trade. He started to look into shipping companies during his formative years. He was curious about the locations at which contact was made between countries for trading purposes. Modern technological advancements have allowed businesses to be operated without the need for people to physically leave their home countries. Air travel has also made it relatively convenient and cheap to conduct one’s business globally.

Mr Firdaos’ interest in trade developed over the years. It wasn’t a light-bulb moment that brought about his involvement in this sector. He shares that completing our studies is simply the first step towards adulthood. It is also important to have an understanding on how things work in the job market to figure out our career pathway. Mr Firdaos explains that having a career means narrowing your interest to a specific field and aiming to be an expert, be it in Banking, Accountancy, or Psychology. He pushes himself to that goal in order to be a credible source for his company. Credibility is a vital factor to consider when we venture into our career pathways. People have to understand how things work and have sufficient relevant knowledge before they can be considered an expert on something, and this is something he believes we need to know before embarking on our career paths.

Mr Firdaos shares with us that his current profession is similar to his university life in the sense that he is required to learn new things every day.


Change is a Constant: Malaysia’s Adaptation to Global Changes

“Well, Malaysia’s future is not about what we do tomorrow,” says Mr Firdaos. “It’s about what we do today.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a plurilateral trade agreement, is about having Malaysia placed back onto the globalisation track to make sure that the country would be of increased relevance in the future. He states that our relevance today is due to policies made in the ‘70s, and ‘80s as well. However, it is important to note that development does not take place linearly.

According to Mr Firdaos, Malaysia’s involvement in the TPP occurs in three phases. The first phase involves a structural reform that Malaysia cannot precipitate organically. Therefore, it has to be done top down through the TPP. For Malaysia to be included in this very high-quality trade agreement, we would have to change some laws for there to be participation in the global trading arrangement involving the US. This initiative is not something new to us.

The second phase requires Malaysia to need a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with countries such as the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Peru. The third phase states that Malaysia has to ensure that we still have a competitive edge over our neighbouring parties such as Vietnam. Vietnam preceded us in joining the TPP which resulted in Malaysia’s involvement. Vietnam only undertook three months or less to be a part of the TPP but Malaysia took three times or probably longer as a negotiating partner. This was largely because the US could not see how much political capital we have in order for us to be taken into consideration.

Now that the three reasons to be a part of the TPP has been outlined, Malaysia’s participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is to be explored. TPP is an initiative that welcomes those that are ready but RCEP is a consolidation of FTAs within a region. ASEAN is an initiate to create a mutually-beneficial relationship in the South-East Asian region so that the countries involved can direct their efforts and resources towards economic growth while maintaining peace. RCEP then expanded with ASEAN+1 FTA which led to sixteen countries being part of a wider trade pact.  

Both the TPP and RCEP are different in many ways. The TPP is an extensive agreement whereas the RCEP aims to consolidate FTAs among all 16 countries involving ASEAN partners. Indeed, Malaysians do not look at the TPP and the RCEP as equal trade agreements. This can be a weakness as we display a tendency of tailoring our perceptions depending on the countries involved. Mr Firdaos shares that in contrast, he would view them both in the same way to reap all the benefits available. To expand on this, if the TPP is ratified first, it will set a high standard within the region for trade liberalization. Furthermore, it will reduce the allure of the RCEP, because then, its only selling point would be the inclusion of China. Conversely, if the RCEP is penned, it would unify ASEAN-Plus FTA, effectively reducing any urgency to complete the ambitious, but costly, reform agenda that is associated with the TPP.

With the withdrawal of the US from the TPP, Mr Firdaos predicts that Japan’s ongoing efforts to revive it is not going to work. He defends his prediction by saying that all eleven countries in the TPP are diverse regarding their agendas. There are countries that are determined to keep the ball turning— Japan, Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. These four countries intend to proceed with the existing pact with minimal changes. However, there are countries that have not voiced their opinions due to second-guessing what Trump’s next move is with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There are also countries who have a stance of indifference and are looking at new members who have joined the TPP before they come up with a firm decision. Countries that do want to make significant change(s) are part of the existing trade pact and so are the ones affected by the absence of the US’ participation (Vietnam and Malaysia).

There has been diverse views on the future of the TPP following the withdrawal of the US. Optimists perceive that this would open a gateway for future trade deals involving the US. However, there are views that take upon the stance of US being a necessary participant. Without such a prime mover in the TPP 11 (the 11 remaining countries involved in the TPP), negotiations would take longer than normal.

He shares that policies are meant to be fluid to reflect the organic changes that occur as the nation develops. Policies should constantly be amended and repealed as they cannot be of prolonged relevance. Therefore, he reminds the public that the government needs to encourage us to leave our comfort zones to be able to reap a higher quality lifestyle as policies are replaced and amended to provide a better system for the public.

He uses the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as an example. Although the public generally disapproves of this policy implementation, Mr Firdaos explains that as the population grows and technology develops, things would have to change with time and the same logic applies with public finance. The government is likely to introduce and reform taxes and policies in line with the country’s stage of development.


Moving Towards an Era of Technology

Mr Firdaos opines that the think tank field would face minimal changes with the swift development of technology that is foreseen to replace human labour. There is a need, he says, to transmit information in order to have the public prepared for impending curveballs. He of course, acknowledges that technology would change how the business is done because creativity, sophistication, and analysis changes with the increase in technology usage. Technology would further assist in the expansion of the think tank businesses and consultation fields but Mr Firdaos says it would not affect his job as a researcher.

He says in the past, there was a stronger dependency on libraries to find out detailed information. The advancement of the Internet enables tasks to be done at a quicker rate. In the past, presentation of ideas would be done verbally but today there is technology to assist in explanation through visuals such as PowerPoint slides.


Bridging the Generational Gap

Mr Firdaos says that with God’s grace, his job in in accordance to his life plans. His only wish is to have spent more time working with his former boss, Dato’ Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin. She was the former ISIS Chief Executive. He says that she played an instrumental role in everyone’s lives in ISIS because she had a distinct way of thinking on how to move things forward. He laments that it is too bad she had passed on last year due to cancer, and wishes he could have joined ISIS earlier to have spent more time with her as she was a very good teacher.

“She’s one of those people who can explain complex things in the simplest of manners, which made understanding her easier and that is the why we appreciate her.”

The consistencies observed by Mr Firdaos throughout his career, youths are intelligent, easily adaptable to technology, independent, creative , and have high energy levels. However, youths can be emotional and rebellious too, though he adds that the same can be observed throughout generations anyway.

The youths that join ISIS are notably ambitious. He says there is a thirst for life, knowledge, and interaction. He negates the perception of youths being too ‘open’ or ‘outgoing’. He says it is naturally expected of youths due to higher exposure towards information via technology.


Political Apathy amidst the Youth

We have asked Mr Firdaos what his thoughts are on political apathy among the youths in Malaysia. He says that the trend has been inconsistent throughout the years. There are youths very much inclined towards being informed in politics. This is apparent in the leadership roles many students undertake and their efforts in joining political parties. Those acts show us there is an interest among youths in being a member of the political sphere. Despite that, there are also others who may want to achieve different things in life such as success in their careers or a preference to be involved in family-related matters. Mr Firdaos observed that youths in high-income countries have an ideological approach in discussion. They understand and believe in the cause that they fight for; when they fight for change and reform, they strive to implement things that few other countries have achieved.

In contrast, Malaysians participate in local politics and discussions for our opinions to be heard.

Mr Firdaos shares that local youths are unsure what to strive for. They call for reforms without understanding what it entails. For instance, they advocate anti-corruption measures and equality in the government, but every country is working towards the same goal of integrity and transparency in their ruling governments. For example, the support of two-thirds of the Parliament is necessary to implement or repeal certain key policies such as Bumiputera rights. To Mr Firdaos’ understanding, what local youths call for are not reforms but policy tweaking.

Even the much-discussed GST is an adaptation and replacement of the Sales and Services Tax (SST). All countries are undergoing a certain stage of development to implement GST to aid the country’s advancement. To dismantle this tax change is to go backwards and narrow the nation’s tax base.

Hence, his advice for us is to first understand the details and implications of our cause before we take action.

In the case of Malaysia, Mr Firdaos shares with us that perhaps the first stage is to understand the importance of being informed on the roles political leaders play in our country. This can be achieved by cultivating passion towards the political climate within Malaysia, continentally and also internationally.

Unity within ASEAN

Rather than a “community”, the ASEAN Economic Community is seen as more of a “neighbourhood” despite its aim to promote economic integration. That is to say that it has not reached/achieved the unity it strives for, namely to become a united conglomerate. The problem lies in the fact that each country continues to cling to age-old traditions of securing individual partnerships with one another, rather than subscribe to a new, joint ASEAN vision. Mr Firdaos also shares that each country sees ASEAN in a different way. For instance, Singapore perceives ASEAN as a policy to integrate within the region while Malaysia views ASEAN as an important regional cooperation which lacks excessive economic reliance on one another because we are predominantly trading with countries outside ASEAN.

Mr Firdaos hypothesised that over time, countries within ASEAN may prefer to secure their own economic and diplomatic agendas independently.


Automotive Industry in Malaysia

Multinational corporations continue to set up operations on Malaysian soil, however recent foreign direct investments (FDIs) have been a shadow of what they were when Malaysia, as a country, was at its peak. Mr Firdaos attributes this to neighbouring countries expanding their horizons in terms of trade.  He uses the local automotive industry as an example. Due to the practice of overprotection in the automotive industry, Thailand and Indonesia have become major competitors to Malaysia – the latter due to its large-scale developments in the industry.

Currently, Malaysia is falling behind Vietnam’s efforts in opening their market where state owned enterprises are to be reformed on a much larger scale than before, which enables Vietnam to sign deals with the EU.

We are one of the most open-marketed countries in the world but the issue lies in being conservative with our development in the automotive industry, in comparison to our competitive neighbouring countries.


Message to the Youth

Mr Firdaos stresses that youths like us should get involved in discussions relating to politics public policy here in Malaysia. Our political support should not depend on personalities but rather policies that are evidence-based. It is important for youths of today to understand that policymaking is no longer like how it done in the past where policies were not adequately discussed and debated openly. There is a freer movement of information today to obtain and verify our sources of information wisely than before. His advice for us is to be continuously informed on any issue that would lead to incremental steps towards nation building.

Incremental steps, big or small, are necessary to bring us closer to our goals. Mr Firdaos’ advice for us is to not take shortcuts to attain our objectives quicker. The detours will create costly mistakes and cause us to regress as a country as we ‘go back in time’ to implement policies that already are outdated in other countries before implementing more advanced ones in ours.

Therefore, there is a need for us to make educated decisions built upon observation and study, to prevent repetitive mistakes of our past.