Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may have lost a huge chunk of the fabled US$681 million that was allegedly steered to him from the scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Bhd fund, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur. The money appears to have been used to acquire a major part of the estimated US$1 billion in assets seized by the US government in July, the sources said.
From the first, mystery has surrounded the US$681 million, which was deposited in Najib’s personal bank account in Ambank in Kuala Lumpur in early 2013, just before the general election, from the Singapore branch of Swiss Falcon Private Bank, owned by the Abu Dhabi fund Aabar, and another Swiss institution, Tanore Finance Group.
For months after the transactions were made public, Najib – who acknowledged the receipt but said the money was a “donation” – and a series of surrogates said it had come from a shifting variety of sources although the prime minister’s allies generally settled on a mysterious Saudi Arabian Sheikh.
In October 2013, US$620 million of the money was just as mysteriously transferred back out to Tanore Finance Group, after which it disappeared. The other US$60 million was said to have been used to fund the Barisan Nasional’s campaign in the 2013 election, among other things.
That transfer to Tanore is said to have been re-transferred into accounts held by Jho Taek Low, the young financial whiz who 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.
Many in Kuala Lumpur believe the acquisitions were made on behalf of Najib’s acquisitive wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has generated considerable irritation for her public flaunting of US$100,000 handbags and enormously expensive jewels. She is the mother of Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson and the producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, which is believed to have been funded by 1MDB money, and which turned a huge profit.
The government is expected to call for general elections in the first quarter of 2017, a full year before the current parliamentary session is due to close. According political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, the government, and particularly the United Malays National Organization, is attempting to thwart the opposition while it is deeply disorganized and squabbling. The opposition, however, has now been joined by the new Parti Prebumi Bersatu Malaysia, headed by ousted UMNO Vice President Muhyiddin Yassin as the secretary general, and being driven by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
“The road is the first or second quarter of next year,” a source told Asia Sentinel. “They are raising funds already.” Musa Hitam, a senior UMNO statesman, has also predicted an early election.
When it was suggested that Najib had plenty of money to fund the next election that was left over from the US$620 million that had disappeared out of the country in 2013, the source said: “That money’s all gone. It all went into buying the paintings and the apartments and the houses that Jho Low paid for. Now it’s going, going, gone…”
On July 20, US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced that the US Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Unit had filed civil complaints seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than US$1 billion in 1MDB assets, the largest such action ever brought under the kleptocracy asset recovery unit.
“Stolen money that is subsequently used to purchase interests in music companies, artwork or high-end real estate is subject to forfeiture under U.S. law,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker, who was present at Lynch’s press conference.
These assets have been detailed in extensive stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, much of it supplied by the blog The Sarawak Report, giving the addresses of high-end real estate and hotel properties in New York and Los Angeles, a $35 million jet aircraft, works of art by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, an interest in the music publishing rights of EMI Music and the production of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Named in the Justice Department’s complaint were Jho Low, as he is known, as well as Riza Aziz and “Malaysian Official 1,” who was not identified further. But the complaint noted that shortly after a 2013 bond sale for 1MDB were diverted to the Tanore account, “US$681,000,000 was sent from the Tanore Account to a bank account belonging to MALAYSIAN OFFICIAL 1.”
Malaysian Official 1 was named 32 times in the 136-page civil complaint. It was an unprecedented action against the head of a government that is considered a vital ally in Southeast Asia and one who as late as last January was playing golf with President Barack Obama in Hawaii.
Najib and his surrogates have for more than a month jumped through hoops to seek to deny that he was Malaysian Official 1, with one going so far as to say that Malaysian Official 1 could be the current Agong, or Malaysian king, the Sultan of Johor. They have accused the US Justice Department of neglecting to hear the Malaysian government’s side of the story. Khairy Jamaluddin, the Youth Minister, told supporters in early August that the US officials “announced (their findings) is as though it was a conviction, as though (those named) are already guilty and to be punished. The words used showed as though Malaysia and the government are guilty.”
In the meantime, however, the US Justice Department is sequestering the assets specified in the complaint, which many observers believe were not Jho Low’s at all, but the Najib family’s as the beneficial owners. While UMNO officials plan for a 14th Parliamentary election, opponents and political analysts are waiting for the next shoe to drop, and that would be the filing of a criminal complaint against Malaysian Official 1 and his accomplices.
If indeed the US$1 billion in assets that have been seized is the property of the Najib family, it doesn’t leave them destitute. Long before he became Prime Minister, critics accused Najib, as defense minister, of a long string of defense acquisitions that had been overpriced by client companies alleged to be directing kickbacks into the Najib coffers. In February, for instance, French prosecutors launched a formal investigation into allegations that Bernard Baiocco, the former president of Thales International, the French defense contractor, of steering bribes to Najib through his close friend, the former defense analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, suspected of being the middle man. So far the case has not moved forward publicly.