Implementing Singapore-Sri Lanka FTA
by Gomi Senadhira
News can be confusing. That happened when I read the headline, “President tells Singapore PM that SL will prioritise implementing FTA” (The Island 09 Sept. 2022). I thought the news item was not accurate. So, I checked the Presidential Secretariat website. It confirmed the validity of this news item. President Ranil Wickremesinghe had informed Singapore PM “that his priority was to bring into effect the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore.” I don’t know what Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong thought when the Sri Lankan President pledged to prioritise the implementation of the FTA with Singapore, during their meeting in Tokyo. The Enterprise Singapore website lists the Sri Lanka – Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA) as one of the FTAs in operation. That is since it entered into force on the 1st of May 2018. So, one may wonder why implementing an agreement that was implemented four years earlier should be a priority for anybody? But then they were in Tokyo for the funeral of slain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Funerals are not the most appropriate venues for discussions of this nature. The leaders don’t go to funerals prepared for such meetings. Hence, I didn’t think much of it.
But then a few days ago, the President reiterated his position. A media release from the Presidential Secretariat said: “President Ranil Wickremesinghe instructed the relevant officials to implement the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) immediately. The President issued these instructions during the discussion held at the Presidential Secretariat this morning (16 October) on the implementation of the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. The existing problems in this regard were discussed at length and the President highlighted the need to provide quick solutions to all the existing problems. President’s Secretary, Saman Ekanayake, Senior Economic Advisor to the President, Dr. R. H. S. Samaratunga, Attorney General Sanjaya Rajaratnam, Secretary to the Ministry of Trade, Commerce and Food Security, S.T. Kodikara, and Heads of Line institutions, were present at this discussion.”
S. T. Kodikara is also the Director General of Commerce (on cover-up-duty) and the website of Sri Lanka’s Department of Commerce confirms that “Sri Lanka and Singapore finalised SLSFTA on January 23, 2018, and it came into operation on May 1, 2018.” It also provides two clarifications on the current status. These are (1) Sri Lanka brought down BCD on 3,537 tariff-lines (3719-182) to zero under Staging Category- “0”, immediately on 01.05.2018.and (2) 18 amendments were identified for discussion.
On their respective websites, government focal points of Singapore and Sri Lanka agree that the implementation of this agreement started in 2018. That is in spite of all the opposition from various sections of society and the recommendation of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry that the public concerns on the agreement should be addressed. Then, there was this committee appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to study the SLSFTA, which recommended 18 amendments. However, no information is available in the public domain on the composition of that committee or its recommendations. So, we do not know if these recommendations include the suspension of the implementation of the SLSFTA! Hence, the instruction to implement the agreement. If so people of this country should have been informed. Singapore should have been informed. The information on the websites should have been revised.
As of now, the agreement has remained in operation since it entered into force on 01 May 2018. So, when the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement was discussed at length at the Presidential Secretariat, and the President “… instructed the relevant officials to implement the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement immediately,” didn’t any of the officials, or advisors, explained that the agreement was implemented on 1st of May, 2018, and it is in operation for almost for five years. Hence there is no need to implement it immediately! After all, we can’t expect the President to visit these websites and get the information. These sites are not like Netflix, which people visit when they have free time.
Normally, after five years, there is a need for a review of an FTA, particularly if it is not progressing well. If an agreement is not working at all and if it appears that the agreement is not even implemented, five years after it came into force, then the problems need to be studied urgently. If we have to do this effectively, then it has to be done in an open and transparent manner, particularly because the public of the country has so many concerns about the SLSFTA. Secondly, it is not the officials who trade under these agreements. It is the people. Openness encourages more widespread public discussion and examination of these agreements and enhances the accountability of officials and negotiators. Therefore, the information should be available to all. For example, what were the 18 amendments identified for discussion? What is the progress on these discussions? What is the value of the Singaporean investment in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan investment in Singapore since the agreement entered into force on the 1st of May 2018? How has Sri Lanka benefited from the agreement? All these should be in the public domain. If not, the people of this country would not know what is happening with trade agreements, particularly with SLSFTA. For example, when was the SLSFTA actually implemented? People and, perhaps, the President of the country, need to know these basic facts.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)