At least 1,784 Malaysian individuals or master clients – including the Sultan of Johor and the sons of three prime ministers – and another 517 offshore entities are among the 215,000 names found in the Panama Papers, the 11.5 million documents taken from the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca & Co.
The files were made public on April 3 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which worked with more than 370 journalists from 76 countries for more than two years to identify the individuals and companies with hidden accounts. Mossack Fonseca, with branches in Miami, Zurich, Hong Kong and more than 35 other countries, is considered one of the world’s top creators of shell companies.
The release of the names, including close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Argentine President Mauricio Macri and hundreds of other notable figures including athletes and actors, has set off a storm across the world, forcing the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister and giving new impetus to legislation in the US requiring the beneficial owners of shell companies to be named.
Mossack Fonseca Says No Laws Broken
A Mossack Fonseca spokesman has denied any attempt to defraud, saying the law firm provides services that “are widely available and commonly used worldwide. It is legal and common for companies to establish commercial entities in different jurisdictions for a variety of legitimate reasons, including conducting cross-border mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, estate planning, personal safety, restructuring and pooling of investment capital from different jurisdictions in neutral legal and tax regimes that does not benefit or disadvantage any one investor.”
The documents, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Project, cover nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015, allowing a “never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.”
The ICIJ project is careful to say that ownership of an offshore company is no evidence that a crime has been committed. However, the fact that 2,300 Malaysian individuals or entities of various hues and aromas maintain accounts through Mossack Fonseca is an indication of the massive capital outflows that have plagued Malaysia for decades.
According to the Global Financial Integrity NGO, the country ranks fifth in the world, behind such giants as China, Russia, India and Mexico, for illicit capital flight. Nearly half a trillion US dollars – US$418.54 billion – left the country between 2004 and 2013, the last year for which figures have been recorded. Malaysia remained in fifth place for the entire 10-year period.
Outflows, which hit US$48 billion in 2013, are believed to have picked up as the country’s political situation has deteriorated over the past two years. While central bank reserves are healthy, they have been falling steadily for months, from US$136 billion in July 2014 to US$95.63 billion today, equivalent to 6.8 months of imports, according to the World Bank.
And, while decisions to move money overseas may not be illegal, they deprive the country itself of funds for investment and development. Some of these outflows are likely to be non-Malay flight capital – mostly Chinese – which prefers expensive but seemingly secure assets in Australia, the US or even London to the higher returns which ought to be available in younger, faster growing Malaysia although post-colonial rhetoric aside, plenty of the Datuks, Tuns and Tan Sris retain a love for London.
Among the Names
Some of the most notable names among the individuals and entities are Kamaluddin Abdullah, head of Feldspar Holdings and son of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi; Mirzan Mahathir, son of Mahathir Mohamad; and Mohamad Nazifuddin Mohamad Najib, son of the current prime minister, Najib Razak. Mahathir's brother-in-law, Mohammed Hashim Mohammed Ali, the onetime head of Malaysia's military.
Others include Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor; Abdul Aziz bin Tawfiq Ayman, husband of Bank Negara Governor Zeti Akhatar Aziz; Muhammad Muhammad Taib, former Rural and Regional Development Minister and UMNO information chief, who since has joined the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat; and Lim Kok Thay, the current managing director of Genting Group; Abdul Halim Harun, former chief executive of UMW Holdings, one of Malaysia’s biggest conglomerates; Sharifuddin Hizan Zainal Abidin, former Group Managing Director of Felda Holdings Bhd; and Khoo Kay Peng, one of Malaysia's richest tycoons and head of MUI Group.
The list also includes the late Hussain Najadi, the founder of what was first known as Arab Malaysian Bank, later Ambank, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 2013 after complaining, his son has charged, about corruption in the United Malays National Organization. Police said he had been killed in a land dispute. The late Tan Tiong Hock, the former Malaysian Chinese Association secretary general, who died in 1985, is also on the list, which can be found here.
The flow of currency into the Panama entities is hardly the only destination for money fleeing Malaysia. As Asia Sentinel reported in 2013, estate agency Jones Lang & Wootton reported that in 2012 Malaysians accounted for 17 percent of all buyers of new top-of-the-line central London dwellings.
In other words almost as many Malaysian are buying as Britons, who themselves accounted for only 19 percent of this market. Identifiable Malaysians figured as buyers of One Hyde Park, the most expensive new building in London overlooking Hyde Park and others probably lie behind the various anonymous offshore companies which figure as owners of most of the owners of apartments ranging in price from US$12 million to US$50 million.
Whether there will be political fallout from the list in Malaysia is another question. The country has been enduring what seems like an endless corruption scandal over the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. for almost two years, plus an unexplained US$681 million in Najib’s personal accounts that appeared in 2013 before most of it disappeared back out a few months later into the branch of a Swiss bank in Singapore, then vanished for good. So far, the prime minister appears bulletproof. He is likely to remain that way.