Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who as “Malaysian Public Official 1” is the target of what was said to be the largest single action ever brought under the US’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, is suing Democratic Action Party National Spokesman Tony Pua for calling him a thief.
The prime minister’ legal action against Pua has set off considerable derision in Kuala Lumpur, where allegations against Najib for the looting of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. have been widely circulated for two years. The now-moribund fund, set up as an investment vehicle in 2009 guaranteed by the Finance Ministry, is believed to have lost as much as RM43 billion (US$11 billion) through mismanagement and theft, with more than US$1 billion diverted into Najib’s own accounts.
Singapore has closed the branches of two Swiss banks believed to have been conduits for the funds and jailed several private bankers. Swiss authorities are demanding that 1MDB and the Malaysian government account for US$4 billion believed to have been laundered illegally into Swiss banks.
In an April 6 Facebook posting protesting an unprecedented action by the government to allow the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia to introduce a bill on sharia law, Pua said the plan to introduce the bill was promoted with the political intent to hang on to power by appealing to Malay sentiment despite the fact that Najib “is the most unpopular prime minister in the history of Malaysia” and that the decision to push the PAS bill was “designed as a political scheme to distract Malaysians from the crimes that the prime minister has committed, mainly the fact that the prime minister has stolen billions of ringgit from 1mdb, the wholly owned subsidiary of the government of Malaysia.”
Then Pua went on to say that “we must not fall into the trap put forward by the prime minister in collusion with PAS, Malaysia must hold firmly strong, we will on the part of the DAP reject the private member bill… the woods that we should not lose sight of is to bring down a kleptocratic administration led by the biggest thief of all in the country, Dato Sri Najib Razak.”
After Pua refused a demand for an apology, Najib’s lawyer Hafarizam Harun said the video had implied that his client committed theft and abused his power. Pua was ordered to report to the police on April 25.
“Contrary to your defamatory statements above, our client is not a tyrannical and oppressive kleptocrat, nor does he shun criticisms, neither he is a leader involved in corrupt practices nor a leader who steals the people's monies,” the law firm said.
“I don’t quite know what Najib is up to,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer in a telephone conversation with Asia Sentinel. “He tries to avoid giving evidence, but it’s pretty hard to escape the fact that he’s a thief.”
From the evidence released last July from the US Justice Department investigation, the lawyer appears to be right. Najib certainly looks like a thief. The investigation found that from 2009 through 2015, more than US$3.5 billion in funds belonging to 1MDB were misappropriated from the fund, with a large part of that diverted for personal use by Public Official No. 1, his stepson Riza Aziz and others.
That included a missing US$681 million that was deposited in Najib’s personal bank account in Ambank in Kuala Lumpur in early 2013. Najib has acknowledged the receipt but said the money was a “donation”without identifying the donor. The US Justice Department ran the total believed to have gone into Najib’s accounts at various times to at least US$1 billion. The search for additional assets is said to be continuing in southern California.
Much of the money is believed to have been re-transferred into accounts held by Jho Taek Low, the young financial whiz who in 2009 convinced Najib to take over a Terengganu state investment fund and turn it into 1MDB. Shortly after, Jho Low, as he calls himself, went on an amazing buying binge of apartments, houses, airplanes, jewelry, paintings and other expensive playthings. Also, armed with a letter of guarantee from 1MDB, he attempted vainly to buy three of London’s most prestigious hotels. At least some of the money, the Justice Department said, was allegedly used to fund the production of the blockbuster movie Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and produced by Riza Aziz. Jho Taek Low was given “special thanks” in the screen credits.
“Stolen money that is subsequently used to purchase interests in music companies, artwork or high-end real estate is subject to forfeiture under US law,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker, who was present at Lynch’s press conference.Malaysian Official 1 was named 32 times in the 136-page civil complaint.
This is Najib's second defamation suit against Pua. In 2015, he sued the DAP MP over comments linking the prime minister to the 1MDB scandal.
Pua has also filed a suit against Najib this year for alleged "misfeasance in public office." Malaysia’s court system, deeply political and aligned with the government, is not expected to side with Pua.
Despite nearly two years of scandal and sensational news that investigations against 1MDB are proceeding in Switzerland, Singapore, the United States and other countries, Najib remains secure in his position as prime minister, at least partly by playing to insecurities on the part of the ethnic Malay majority in the country against the Chinese-dominated opposition. He is expected to call a snap election sometime later this year to guarantee another five years in power for the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition.