The decision by a Beijing-backed forum to feature disgraced former premier Najib Razak as its keynote speaker has sparked fierce criticism among some in Malaysia’s business and diplomatic community. Najib, who was convicted of seven charges related to scandal-hit state fund 1MDB that carry a 12-year jail term, delivered the address at the 2021 World Chinese Economic Forum (WCEF) on Monday. He is currently out on bail and is appealing the conviction. According to the event’s website, it was jointly organised by the state-run China Chamber of International Commerce (CCOIC), its business unit China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) and Malaysia-based think tank International Strategy Institute (ISI). The Minister-Counsellor of the Economic and Commercial Office of the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia, Zhang Peidong, delivered virtual remarks before Najib spoke. Malaysian property tycoon Lee Kim Yew, a co-founder of WCEF, distanced himself from the event on December 27, saying it was a “huge embarrassment” that Najib had been invited. Lee said he had initially founded the WCEF but had since changed its name to the World Chinese Economic Summit and then to the Global Chinese Economic and Technology Summit this year. He said the decision of the organiser of the December 27 event to describe it as part of the WCEF series of forums would cause confusion. “The organiser of this Dec 27 event should not call it 11th WCEF in the first place. This time they invited the former Prime Minister to that forum, a convicted criminal awaiting outcome of an appeal. “Surely they caught media attention, but l need to made my stand clear, we must respect the judiciary and uphold the Rule of Law in Malaysia,” he said in a post on Facebook. ‘National embarrassment’: Court upholds Malaysian ex-PM Najib’s 12-year jail sentence Former Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius wrote a scathing rebuke in his blog against the 68-year-old’s attendance, calling it a “calculated insult to our nation’s honour.” “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 People’s Republic of China to give pride of place to a convicted felon,” wrote Ignatius. But WCEF chairperson Cheah Chyuan Yong, who is also the founder of ISI, said Najib’s jail sentence was not considered by the forum organisers. “When Najib was prime minister for nine years, China-Malaysia relations were very strong, especially on the economic side,” he was quoted as saying by the Malaysiakini news website. Moreover, Najib’s father and second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein, laid the foundations for bilateral ties between the two countries, Cheah told reporters. He added that the invitation to Najib was sent out before a December 8 verdict at the Court of Appeal that upheld the High Court’s conviction of the ex-premier. Last July, the High Court found Najib guilty on three counts of criminal breach of trust, three counts of money laundering and one count of abuse of power over 42 million ringgit (US$10.3 million) from state-owned SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. Oh Ei Sun, Najib’s former political secretary, who is now a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) think tank, said the organisers “essentially [took] a gamble on Najib, thinking he can be rehabilitated one way or the another or restored as a Malaysian leader and thereby invited him.” Could Najib Razak be Malaysia’s next prime minister? Najib continues to be an MP for the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which has bounced back following its defeat in the 2018 election under his leadership. He has also experienced a resurgence in clout, having played a key role in Umno’s recent state election victories. While progressives in Malaysia are clamouring for Najib to go to jail, conservative voters might still “champion” him as a hero, said Oh. Najib himself has claimed that some of the activities linked to SRC International were in the “national interest” although one of the Court of Appeal judges said his actions were a “national embarrassment”. Still, Oh pointed to trends suggesting that voters had a more conservative outlook for the country. “Therefore, the shrewd organisers see the return of Najib perhaps in a leadership position, as being something that’s not far away on the horizon.” “I think most local Chinese businessmen … in Chinese we say, bet on both sides,” Oh added. The current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is an Umno vice-president and the party is said to be eyeing elections some time next year. Najib – China’s blue-eyed boy? Former diplomat Ignatius, who has served in London, Washington and Beijing, argued in his blog post that Najib was China’s “blue-eyed boy”. He described the lawmaker as one of the region’s “most pro-Beijing leaders” whose time in office was marked by China securing “dozens of dubious infrastructure contracts” including the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to boost global trade and connectivity. The project – a 665km link to connect the east and west coasts of the Malaysian peninsula and costing 50.27 billion ringgit (US$12 billion) – was initially mired in allegations of corruption and differences over terms. Malaysian public’s perception of Malaysia-China relations remains a very positive one Oh Ei Sun, Najib’s ex-political secretary Ignatius called on Malaysians to “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.” However, Oh said while China preferred foreign leaders who were “businesslike and not too ideologically-oriented” and Najib fit this criteria, “I am not sure whether he is still their blue-eyed boy”. The furore over Najib’s WCEF appearance is unlikely to impact the public’s perception of Malaysia-China relations as bilateral ties are very strong, Oh maintained. Why Malaysia’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ approach to China is deliberate “Malaysian public’s perception of Malaysia-China relations remains a very positive one,” he said. Malaysia’s trade with China grew 4.2 per cent to 329.77 billion ringgit (US$72.5 billion) in 2020, making Beijing the Southeast Asian nation’s largest trade partner for the 12th consecutive year. “When there is so much inter-economic interaction with China, the kind of things you buy are made in China, you would love to sell your products and services to China, so it’s difficult to be critical of China when you depend so much economically on China, this goes for the nation and people as well,” said Oh.