Malaysian premier Najib Razak Sunday told a gathering of African leaders including Zimbabwe's controversial President Robert Mugabe that good governance was vital to economic growth.
At a forum on promoting economic ties between Malaysia and Africa, Najib said the growth of social media was setting higher standards of accountability for governments around the world and leaders had to be ready to embrace change.
He made the call in front of 16 African leaders including the 87-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and is banned from travelling to the European Union over his regime's human rights record.
"Good governance and best practices are essential prerequisites for economic growth and a precursor for transformation," he said at opening of the three-day event in Putrajaya, south of Kuala Lumpur.
"Some people are fearful of the uncertainty that change brings; others are threatened by having to do things differently. A true leader must be able to address these concerns and obstacles and to overcome this resistance to change," Najib added.
He said that in a more gobalised world, the social, political and economic situations in most countries were unable to remain stable for long.
Najib said social media was raising people's awareness and setting a "higher standard of accountability about actions and inactions on the part of global governments."
Malaysia's invitation to controversial African leaders with dubious rights records such as Mugabe -- who attended the meeting surrounded by bodyguards -- has caused concern among activists.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court over genocide and war crimes charges, was also invited but pulled out after opposition to his presence from rights groups.
Former president of the Malaysian Bar Council Ragunath Kesavan said the invitations could be seen as condoning their abuses.
"We should not engage with Mugabe. We should not add legitimacy to this international pariah," he said.
"It will be seen as condoning and sympathetic to what Mugabe is doing in his country."
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told state media that Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti, who was supposed to attend the forum in place of his president, also did not turn up Sunday, meaning the country had effectively boycotted the event.
"They (Sudan) are not here... they have informed us... due to some unforeseen circumstances," he told the Bernama news agency.
Malaysia's national oil company Petronas has major exploration investments in Sudan with the African nation last year producing 26 percent of Petronas' total international output, according to the Star daily.
The company said international operations contributed 45.3 percent to its total 2010 revenue of 216.4 billion ringgit ($71.2 billion.)
Malaysia's heavily trade-dependent economy needs to find new markets for the manufactured products, oil and palm oil that it exports.
Deputy Foreign Minister Kohilan Pillay has said total trade between Malaysia and Africa in 2010 stood at 25 billion ringgit ($8.2 billion), a 39 percent surge from the previous year.
"There are tremendous opportunities for Malaysia. We need to explore the various opportunities," he added.
Officials say investors will meet potential partners and identify opportunities during the forum while leaders will map ways to promote trade and economic ties.
Activists say Malaysia also has a poor rights record with authorities at present holding 29 individuals under tough security laws that allow for unlimited detention without trial.
Officials said in March that nearly 30,000 foreign workers have been caned in Malaysia since 2005 over various immigration offences, a punishment which rights groups have condemned as a "barbaric" practice.