By Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee
A Chinese organization is facing a fusillade of criticism in Malaysia for inviting convicted felon and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as the keynote speaker at a forum this week, with some calling it “an insult to the nation.”
Only China’s government could have cleared the invitation extended to Najib from the World Chinese Economic Forum (WCEF), said Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian diplomat who observed acidly that the ex-PM “remains China’s blue-eyed boy.”
The invitation is “[a] calculated insult to our nation’s honor,” Ignatius, a critic of his country’s current government, which Najib’s party leads, said in a blog post on Monday. That day, Najib gave the keynote speech at the World Chinese Economic Forum, co-hosted by the China Chamber of International Commerce (CCOIC).
“It is a stunning rebuke of Malaysia’s legal process as well as an insult to all Malaysians. Never before has a foreign country acted with such disdain for a neighbor,” wrote Ignatius, who works as a diplomatic adviser to First Step Forum, a Helsinki-based NGO.
In July 2020, Najib was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges tied to a massive financial scandal at 1MDB, a state fund he established while in office. Earlier this month, a court of appeal upheld that ruling but postponed his sentence as it awaits a decision on Najib’s appeal to the Federal Court.
The World Chinese Economic Forum, held on Monday in Petaling Jaya, was jointly organized by the China Chamber of International Commerce (CCOIC), which is affiliated with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), and the International Strategy Institute, a Malaysian think-tank.
Najib delivered the keynote address, and local media reported he was the guest of honor during a gala dinner and award ceremony.
Because of his conviction, Najib should not have been invited, regional political analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar said.
“With Najib convicted, getting invited to such an event, understandably, is an insult to the nation,” Tunku Mohar, a political scientist at the International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews on Thursday.
“[T]hey are free to invite anyone. But inviting Najib doesn’t do much good to the image of the conference and its organizers.”
Najib is also standing trial in other 1MDB-related cases, which are ongoing or set to go to trial next year.
BenarNews was unable to contact Cheah Chyuan Yong, the chairperson of the economic forum, who had earlier told local media news site Malaysiakini that Najib was invited because of his commitment to Sino-Malaysian relations. Najib’s criminal convictions were not considered by the organizers, Cheah Chyuan said.
Iganatius, the ex-diplomat, meanwhile was certain that Beijing had approved the invitation to Najib, because of the affiliation between CCOIC and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.
“The WCEF [World China Economic Forum], sponsored and funded by a number of PRC organizations, is an important platform for highlighting and promoting China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is no way the PRC embassy here would have consented to Najib’s invitation without high level clearance from Beijing,” Ignatius wrote.
“It must be seen, therefore, for what it is – a calculated decision by the government of the Peoples Republic of China to give pride of place to a convicted felon.”
BenarNews could not independently verify that the council was a state body, but its website says it was set up in 1952 and its responsibilities are to “implement relevant major national development strategies, and promote foreign trade, bilateral investment and economic & technological cooperation.”
“Najib remains China’s blue-eyed boy. They do not consider his conviction an impediment to working with the man. China’s strategic interests trump Najib’s crimes,” Ignatius said.
“By giving him an international platform, China hopes to redeem the man and whitewash his criminality.”
Corruption a capital offense in China
One Malaysian investigative news portal, Edisi Siasat, noted that China metes out harsh sentences for those convicted of corruption and graft-linked activity.
“China is a country that has a fairly harsh and strict punishment for corruption offenses. Individuals convicted of criminal offenses in China, have no choice of punishment but death,” it wrote in an editorial on Wednesday.
Najib was friendly with China, Mokhtar, Ignatius, and another analyst noted.
“It is not a secret that Najib during his rule was very friendly to China with plenty of gigantic projects in awarded to Chinese concerns. So, it is not surprising that he is invited to the China-related forum,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, who was a former political secretary under Najib.
During his tenure as PM, Najib forged several deals with China, including the U.S. $12 billion East Coast Rail Link, which is part of Beijing’s global infrastructure-building program, BRI.
Malaysia’s current government, spearheaded by Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, recently revived the project that was halted in 2018 by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the grounds it was too expensive and unviable.
Cynthia Gabriel, the director of Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, an NGO, said criminals should not be included in Malaysia’s quest for economic success.
“In the rush towards post-pandemic priorities and foreign investment, let’s not forget that anti-corruption rules must play a pivotal part in due diligence in our quest for economic success. Criminals should not be included in whatever capacity,” she said on Twitter.