Najib’s Latest Smokescreen

The list of names, initials, deals and numbers can make it hard for the public to keep track of what has been revealed about the goings on at 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the government’s scandal-riddled sovereign investment fund, which may have liabilities amounting to as much as RM50 billion and which is arguably the biggest scandal in Malaysian history.

So it is more than possible that even Malaysians accustomed to news of high level financial misdemeanors will have been mollified by the recent announcement of a supposed settlement of a multi-billion dollars dispute between 1MDB and the Abu Dhabi state company, International Petroleum Investment Corporation (IPIC). It will come in handy as Prime Minister Najib Razak gears up for a general election in which 1MDB will figure in the minds of many voters even if the media remains light on airing the actual facts of the case. That election is expected sometime later this autumn. The voters should remain suspicious.

The “settlement” with 1MDB involves the repayment to IPIC of US$1.2 billion, a sum which covers interest payments made by IPIC in respect of 1MDB bonds issued in 2012 and due for redemption in 2022 that were to finance 1MDB’s acquisition of energy assets. What remains unsettled is the $3.5 billion itself, but according to the joint statement issued to the London Stock Exchange this will be negotiated “in good faith” between the parties as will payments to certain (un-named) parties by 1MDB which are at the heart of the dispute.

Malaysian officials now claim that “this arbitration settlement has weakened the US (DOJ) Department of Justice civil suit and claims that 1MDB’s funds were stolen.”It will do nothing of the sort. The DOJ has been seeking to seize $1 billion of assets in the US, including luxury real estate, art works and other assets including the profit from the blockbuster movie Wolf of Wall Street, co-produced by Najib’s stepson Reza Aziz, on the grounds they were acquired with stolen money. That comment came from Mohammed Puad Zakarshi Director-General of the Information Ministry’s Special Affairs Division and a member of the Supreme Council of UMNO, the ruling party.

He went on to assert that full settlement would be made by “monetizing 1MDB investments” without resort to taxpayer funds. But this seems an improbable claim given the size of the debt, the nature of its assets. Nor is it likely to have any effect on charges by the Swiss government that an estimated US$4 billion of 1MDB funds was laundered into Swiss bank accounts. That case is still alive. Singapore has suspended two Swiss banks from doing business in the island republic over misdoings in connection with transfers of money from 1MDB and jailed a number of officials.

In fact, Bloomberg reported today that US prosecutors are even now asking questions about the relationships of Goldman Sachs’ lead banker Tim Leissner, now suspended, and money flowing through accounts linked to him with what Bloomberg called “politically connected Malaysians” and the association between Jho Taek Low and Leissner. The Justice Department alleged last July that Jho Low, the flamboyant Malaysian banker who helped Najib set up 1MDB is at the center of a scheme that siphoned off as much as US$3 billion from the troubled investment fund.

Certainly the partial settlement appears to do nothing to contradict DOJ claims but is merely a maneuver, likely financed by 1MDB’s sale of power assets to politically motivated mainland Chinese state enterprises, to paper over 1MDB issue until the election is out US$3.5 billion to IPIC through a company named Aabar BVI in the British Virgin Islands. This was supposedly to cover IPIC’s guarantee of 1MDB bonds. But IPIC asserts it never received anything and that the money actually went to a company with a name very similar to the IPIC subsidiary which should have received the money.

The disappearance of those funds is intimately connected to the acquisition of assets in the US and elsewhere. Some funds also flowed by diverse routes into the personal account of Najib, though the prime minister asserts these were a donation from Saudi Arabia. Now the admission by 1MDB that it is discussing the US$3.5 billion issue “in good faith” is clear admission that its early claim to have paid that sum to IPIC’s BVI company was a lie to hide a gigantic fraud. The biggest question thus remains: will any of the criminals be prosecuted? It is unlikely in Malaysia unless the government changes.