KUALA LUMPUR – The exchange of smiles after an intense debate and eventual approval of the much debated, criticised and challenged trade deal in Malaysian history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), has been the most memorable moment for Tan Sri Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria.
The former secretary-general of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) said winning the three-day debate, which was held in Parliament early this year, was an achievement for her as well as the negotiating team, believing that they were doing something that was good for the country.
“Finally, it was passed. Everybody just clapped and you know, I almost shouted. We were so happy.
“It was such a journey that we had been through for so many years. So much pain and challenges that we faced,” she told Bernama in an exclusive interview.
Rebecca, who retired on July 1, 2016, was asked on what would be her most memorable moment while being in the civil service since 1981 and her experience working in one of the important ministries in the country.
Sharing a glimpse of the TPPA negotiating process, she said surrounding issues, particularly those related to the Bumiputera policy, state-owned enterprises and government procurement, were the most difficult areas to negotiate with the other 11 member countries.
She said the meeting room was clouded with tensions as well as enthusiasm among the leaders and young officers to get this trade agreement, the world’s largest, done.
“Of course, sleepless night negotiations are never easy, when we do negotiations, you can go right around the clock…(but) it was a fantastic learning experience for all of us.
“You felt so proud to be a Malaysian in the civil service because you’re making such a big contribution and to see everybody working together as a team, that feeling is so difficult to replace,” she said.
The unbelievable fact that the TPPA also involved the engagement of opposition members such as Nurul Izzah Anwar, Charles Santiago and Wong Chen, for discussions and briefing sessions at her office in Jalan Duta, was also a history to remember.
Rebecca served as MITI secretary-general since 2010 and prior to that, she was Deputy Secretary-General (Trade), providing oversight for the formulation and implementation of Malaysia’s international trade policies and positions.
She began her career in the Administrative and Diplomatic Service in 1981 and served in various capacities in the then Ministry of Trade and Industry.
In 1988, she was seconded to the ASEAN Plant Quarantine and Training Centre as its Chief Administration and Procurement Officer.
Rebecca has been involved extensively in ASEAN. In 2006, she chaired the ASEAN Senior Economic Officials Meeting.
She has also held the Chair of the ASEAN High Level Task Force for Economic Integration as well as being Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum, Global Agenda Council, South East Asia.
Rebecca said serving in that capacity had offered her a tremendous and amazing opportunity in meeting and interacting with the world’s great leaders such as Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Justin Trudeau, Lee Hsien Loong, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.
“That kind of opportunity is so rare and I treasured them. Those were not easy to come by,” she said.
Ask on her retirement plans, Rebecca with a smile on her face deliberated on the activities that she had in mind.
“Whatever I do, will not take my freedom away. I am not looking at anything full time.
“I want to be able to read more because I have not had enough time to read. I want to travel a little bit more.
Rebecca said she wanted to travel to beautiful places that she had already gone to but did not have the chance to enjoy due to her work commitment.
“I want to enjoy my life. Now I can look after my family and do anything that I want,” she giggled.
On whether there is an offer for her to extend her service, she calmly explained: “My minister (MITI Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed) did ask, but I said I have made up my mind. I have got priorities that I want to focus on, so (it’s) time to go.
“When you have done your best already, it’s good to move on and let others come and take over, so that they can then do what is necessary for the organisation.
“I have given my best to the government and I think the government has been extremely good to me,” she added.
Rebecca is succeeded by Datuk J Jayasiri who happened to be the Chief Negotiator for Malaysia during the TPPA negotiation.