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What? Najib Tun Razak invited to give the keynote address at an international forum? Surely there must be some mistake? A misprint? A misunderstanding perhaps? Who in their right mind would invite a convicted felon – “a national embarrassment” to quote the head of the three-member Court of Appeal panel who upheld the former prime minister’s conviction on charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power – to deliver the keynote address at such a seemingly important event with dozens of diplomats, businessmen and politicians in attendance?

But no, as unbelievable as it may sound, it is true. The Beijing-sponsored World Chinese Economic Forum (WCEF) which begins today in Petaling Jaya does indeed have the former prime minister and convicted felon listed as a keynote speaker. 

What does it say of the organizers of the forum? What does it say of the former prime minister?

The WCEF, sponsored and funded by a number of PRC organizations*1, 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. 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.

The message is clear: 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. By giving him an international platform, China hopes to redeem the man and whitewash his criminality. 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 neighbour. 

But why would a government that ruthlessly executes its own corrupt officials give Najib such special treatment? Perhaps the fact that Najib also happens to be one of the region’s most pro-Beijing leaders might have something to do with it. During his time in office, China secured dozens of dubious infrastructure contracts that became legendary for their lack of transparency, dubious feasibility and corruption. Projects like the RM60 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) – the biggest BRI-related project in Malaysia – is estimated to remain unprofitable and dependent on government subsidies for decades to come. 

It was all part of an elaborate scheme in which the government of China colluded to facilitate dubious and illegal payments involving infrastructure contracts to help Najib cover his tracks when the whole 1MDB deal fell apart. 

As well, after he was spurned by the West over the 1MDB issue, China embraced Najib even more, treating him as a hero whenever he visited Beijing. In turn, Najib declared China a strategic ally and was set to begin a series of expensive Chinese defence equipment purchases before the romance was abruptly ended when Najib was routed at the polls. 

If Najib had stayed in office, there is little doubt that Malaysia would have ended up a PRC client state – with a deeply compromised leader, a nation heavily indebted to China and a country increasingly restricted in charting its own course in international affairs. While it would have been an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia, it would have represented a major strategic advance into Southeast Asia for China. PRC-built ports along the Malacca Straits which were being planned could ultimately have been used to control one of the most strategic waterways in the world.

Malaysians must reject in no uncertain terms this PRC attempt to revive the fortunes of a man who has done so much harm to Malaysia’s economic and political interests. China likes to say that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries; it is doing just that when it elevates a convicted felon to an honoured position at a key Chinese-sponsored and inspired event. At the very least, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri ought to publicly express disapproval of such an ill-considered invitation.

Don’t expect, however, that Putrajaya will respond firmly to this calculated insult to our nation’s honour. Our leaders have long since lost the scrotal gumption to stand up to Beijing even when vital national interests are at stake in the South China Sea or when a calculated insult is levelled against us. 

As for the former prime minister, it is clear that he has no shame, no moral turpitude to stand before an international forum despite his conviction. How dare he talk about building a shared future when he single-handedly did so much to destroy ours. He forfeited that right along with whatever credibility he had left when he purloined millions from the public purse. But if he thinks that the applause that he will likely get from his pro-Beijing audience when he stands to speak will drown out his shame, he is sadly mistaken.

*1 The 2021 World Chinese Economic Forum is hosted by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, Shaanxi Provincial People’s Government & International Strategy Institute (ISI) together with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade Shaaxi Branch (CCPIT), and also China Chamber of International Commerce (CCOIC) – WCEF website

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 27th December 2021]