By now, the mysterious US$681 million (RMB2.83 billion at current exchange rates) that showed up in the personal AmBank account of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2013 has been said to come from so many different sources and to be used for so many different purposes that the government can’t keep track.
The source of the money is just one of a series of questions dogging Najib, who has fought to stay in power by firing or neutralizing anybody who might get in his way, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and a long string of others.
To reports that he is being investigated in Singapore, New York, Switzerland and France, Najib has blamed unnamed dark forces or political enemies. He has hinted that the Chinese are involved in a plot to take over the country from ethnic Malays. He has paid vast amounts of money, created make-work jobs or allowed rent-seeking from top UMNO cadres through dodgy contracts to keep himself in power. In his latest move, last week he ousted Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the onetime prime minister, from power in Kedah after a bruising fight that sources in the northern part of the country said was won by payments to turn around the votes of state assembly members backing Mukhriz.
When the US$681 million was first made public in July 2015, Najib said it came from an unnamed Middle Eastern source whom he declined to identify and denied that it was for his personal use. He refused to go beyond that.
Then officials said the money had come from a Saudi source and that it was to be spent in the 2013 election to ward off Islamic fundamentalists, although there were none – a violation of Malaysian constitutional law, which bars donations from foreign sources from being used for political purposes – and that US$620 million had been returned to the donor.
On Jan. 26, the Attorney General, Mohamed Apandi Ali, a longtime United Malays National Organization stooge, held a hasty press conference “clearing” Najib of any wrongdoing in the affair while at that time refusing to name the source. Then he told the Malaysian daily Sin Chew the money had come from a member of the Saudi royal family “out of a belief in [Najib] and his leadership on key issues.”
But on Feb. 5, the New York Times reported the Saudi foreign minister as saying the money hadn’t come from the Saudi royal family, but that he believed it had come from a businessman who was involved in a business deal with Najib – although he offered no further details. In any event, in the intervening three years, there has been no evidence that Najib was involved in a business deal that would require that much money.
In fact, the only thing that is clear about the donation is that nobody knows where it came from or what it was to be used for. There has been no documentation produced to show the provenance of the money. Apandi didn’t produce a paper trail when he cleared Najib on Jan. 26.
According to a July report by the website Sarawak Report, edited by Clare Rewcastle Brown from the UK, the money actually was sent to Malaysia from a British Virgin Islands shell company into the Singapore account of a private Swiss bank and from there into Najib’s personal account at AmBank in Kuala Lumpur. It seems unlikely that either a Saudi prince or a businessman would choose to channel that much money through a shell company from the BVI for legitimate business purposes, or to seek to ward off Islamists in a moderate Muslim country that has no problems with fundamentalists.
A few months after the 2013 election, the US$620 million was returned to the same account. Some reports have said the money has been frozen by the Singaporeans. The Singaporeans announced last week that they were investigating several Malaysian accounts although they didn’t name who the accounts belonged to. Mahathir Mohamad, who has become the most potent adversary against a man who was once his protégé, has demanded an answer from the Singaporean on whether they froze the money or not.
The main informant for newspaper and television reports giving the Saudis as the source of the money appears to be a minor Saudi prince named Turki bin Abdullah, the late King Abdullah’s seventh son, who is known to have received US$70 million from a firm connected to 1Malaysia Development Bd., the troubled state-backed investment fund.
Turki has been linked to the renegade Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, as he is known, who collaborated with Najib in setting up 1MDB in 2009. The Swiss government has charged that 1MDB has been looted of US$4 billion, although it didn’t name Najib. Jho Low is currently keeping a low profile, believed to be living in Taiwan. The huge yacht he owns, the 91.5-meter Equanimity, is sitting at a dock in New Zealand, apparently for servicing.
In any case, the growing confusion over the explanations is raising further doubts in Malaysia and portraying a government in disarray, to the point where Apandi has threatened journalists with life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane under proposed amendments to the Official Secrets Act for being a party to leaking state secrets. Both Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists said they are “appalled” by Apandi’s statement.
In the past, “state secrets” have largely been anything the government says is a secret including criminal breach of trust and abuse of power. In addition, Khalid Abu Bakar is warning the public not to comment on the 2006 murder of the Mongolian beauty and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in the wake of reports in France that two top officials connected to the 1996 purchase by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense when Najib was defense minister, prior to becoming prime Minister of French submarines have been charged with bribing Najib.
The purchase earned Najib €114 million (US$127.1 million at current exchange rates) in kickbacks that allegedly were transferred to the United Malays National Organization. Another €36 million, said to be for the personal use of Najib and his close friend Abdul Razak Baginda, was routed to a mysterious company in Hong Kong called Terasasi Hong Kong Ltd., which is nothing more than a name on a wall at a Wan Chai accounting firm’s office.