Two Questions for Malaysia's PM Najib

If, as Asia Sentinel reported on August 6, more than RM1 billion from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts disappeared somewhere overseas, the Sarawak Report has apparently solved where the money went. It was more than RM1 billion and it appears to have gone back where it came from, deepening the mystery.

Najib has muddied things further. After United Malays National Organization party members said the money came from the Middle East to support the 2013 general election, he now has told UMNO division leaders it was donated by Saudi Arabia which was grateful for Malaysia's fight against the fundamentalist Islamic State organization which is causing chaos in the Middle East. But the money was deposited to his personal account in March of 2013, a full year before the international US-led coalition came into existence.

Malaysia has provided no troops and has as nearly as can be determined played no role in the fight against ISIS. In June of 2014, in fact, Najib, in a speech to party members said that if UMNO members were "as brave as ISIS militants, the party would be strong.” It is also highly unlikely that the Saudis would make a secret donation to his personal account, rather than routing the money through the Malaysian military. Especially when almost the entire amount disappeared back out into a Singapore bank account.

Since July 2, when the Sarawak Report and the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly US$700 million had been deposited in Najib’s personal account at AmBank in Kuala Lumpur in March of 2013, there has been a continuing mystery over who gave Najib the money and what it was used for.

Grass roots concern

It appears that the UMNO rank and file are starting to question what Najib was up to. An UMNO Youth division in Melaka over the weekend passed an emergency measure saying that Najib must resign over issues including the massive scandal surrounding the deeply indebted 1Malaysia Development Bhd. and the donation into Najib’s account. A number of other speeches in other UMNO rural chapters have been critical of the deposit scandal and the 1MDB affair.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been trying to unseat Najib for more than a year, said it best in his blog, Che Det, on Aug. 10: “Arabs are generous, but not that generous... This claim that Arabs donated billions is what people describe as hogwash or bullshit.”

The idea that RM2 billion was spent in the 2013 general election, Mahathir said, “is absurd.” Mahathir needed less than RM10 million, he said, for each of the five elections he presided over as the Barisan’s leader.

Sarawak Report’s August 14 edition has reported that US$650 million (RM2 billion) was transferred from the Prime Minister’s AmPrivate Bank account in Kuala Lumpur after the 2013 general election and deposited in the name of Tanore Finance Corporation, domiciled in the British Virgin Islands, at Falcon Bank in Singapore.

Tanore is a mystery, its true ownership shrouded in the BVI’s impervious banking laws. Tanore originally transferred US$681 million into Najib’s AmBank account earlier in March. To earlier explanations that the money was “donated" to Najib personally on behalf of UMNO for the election, there are further questions.

When the money was transferred from Tanore to Najib’s account, the purpose of the transfer, according to a transcript of the transaction obtained by Sarawak Report, was not a donation. It was listed as a “partial payment.” Tanore was apparently wound up in April of 2014, raising questions where the US$650 million went next.

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A partial payment for what? None of Najib’s allies have been able to explain how or why the prime minister received and sent back such an enormous amount of money, then closed his personal bank account.

The Tanore Finance Corporation account used in the transaction was at Falcon Private Bank in Singapore, a Swiss-based bank owned by the Abu Dhabi company Aabar, which had signed a RM18 billion “strategic partnership” with 1MDB just days before, according to Sarawak Report.

More investigations

The mystery has spurred investigations by Swiss and Singaporean authorities into money laundering and raises the possibility of a US one as well, given that Jho Taek Low, a friend of the prime minister’s family who was instrumental in setting up 1MDB, has become an American citizen and is thus subject to US money laundering laws.

Voluminous records that implicate Jho Low, as he is known, were given to the Sarawak Report's Clare Rewcastle Brown by a Swiss national, Xavier Andre Justo. The documents, including emails and WhatsAp chats, were stolen by Justo, a former official with PetroSaudi International, a Middle Eastern oil exploration company that received a US$1 billion loan from 1MDB.

Singaporean and Malaysian authorities have frozen numerous accounts over the 1MDB investigations. Two of those accounts are believed to be at Falcon.

Najib has gone to extraordinary lengths to shortstop all domestic investigations into the matter, including ousting Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for questioning the 1MDB accounts. He has fired Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who according to sources in Kuala Lumpur was preparing indictment documents against Najib when he was sacked. He promoted two members of the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which was investigating the 1MDB affair, to the cabinet, paralyzing that investigation. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s top two officers have been placed on leave and a half-dozen investigators have been interrogated, in effect stopping the commission’s investigation as well.

Fire the messengers

Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the respected central bank governor, is under intense attack along with four top members of the Bank Negara hierarchy on suspicion she was behind the leaks to Rewcastle Brown and the Wall Street Journal.

The government has blocked critical reporting, suspending for three months the country’s most influential financial publications owned by The Edge Group. It has attempted to block The Sarawak Report in Malaysia, but the attempt has easily been circumvented.

The government is also on the hunt for foreign interests pursuing “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy under sections 124B and 1241 of the Penal Code,” statutes that basically replicate the Internal Security Act, which was ostensibly repealed at Najib’s urging by the Parliament in 2012.

Sarawak Report also adds detail to Asia Sentinel reports that that money was handed out personally by the Prime Minister to UMNO party heads, not only before the election but after, including numerous payments to MPs. The money was distributed in the form of checks given to key party coordinators by the prime minister, drawn on Najib’s AmBank account. These cadres have been the staunchest defenders of Najib even as the public outcry grows.

Despite the crackdown and despite the bribes to the lawmakers, however, the questions keep coming. The answers don’t.