It’s got it all – super models, mega yachts, diamond necklaces, Hollywood superstars, fine art, and political intrigue.
While you could be forgiven for thinking I’m describing the latest extravagant and somewhat farfetched storyline of the latest James Bond outing, you would be wrong. For this story also involves a pudgy Malaysian businessman and the biggest theft in history from the coffers of the Malaysian tax payers.
I am, of course, referring to the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal that has one again hit the headlines following the release of a 251-page court document issued Thursday by the US Department of Justice.
The document details the crafty workings of Malaysian financier Jho Low – among others, including Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz – who is accused of going on a lavish spending spree that beggars-belief with money stolen from the Malaysian people via the fund established by Najib in 2009 to promote economic development.
The Sarawak Report, who has doggedly exposed misconduct in this case, lays out all of the sordid details of his dealings, including presenting supermodel Miranda Kerr with a fabulously expensive and specially commissioned set of diamonds – a matching 18k white gold diamond necklace, bracelet and ring, costing US$2 million; an 8.8-carat pink diamond heart-shaped pendant costing US$3.8 million, and two 5-carat “internally-flawless, pear-shaped diamond earrings” bought for just over a million dollars.
The court documents also detail Low’s purchase of a US$250 million super-yacht, described as “capable of carrying up to twenty-six guests and up to thirty-three crew members and includes a helicopter landing pad, an on-board gymnasium, a cinema, a massage room, a sauna, a steam room, an experiential shower and a plunge pool” – not quite your average weekend getaway dinghy.
Hollywood heavyweight Leonardo Dicaprio was also the beneficiary of Low’s admiration, scoring a US$600,000 Oscar statuette once owned by Marlon Brando, a US$3.3 million painting by Pablo Picasso, and a Jean-Michel Basquiat oil painting costing US$9 million.
There is also evidence, according to the documents, that almost US$30 million of the money was spent on a necklace for the wife of ‘Malaysian Official 1’ – who is widely accepted to be Prime Minister Najib.
According to Reuters, the lawsuits show the jewellery for Rosmah Mansor was bought with funds that passed through Najib’s account. The jewellery, like Leo’s Picasso painting, was purchased with funds traceable to diverted proceeds from a 2013 bond offering by 1MDB, according to the filings.
The extravagant diamond necklace was bought in 2013, just months after US$680 million was transferred to the private bank account of Najib in Kuala Lumpur, the filings show. The Prime Minister has denied these links and claims the money was an exceedingly generous gift from the Saudi Royal family.
These are just a small handful of the many lavish purchases made with money linking back to the public fund. For the whole account, I suggest you read the full Sarawak Report article or, if you can muster the energy, the DoJ court documents, to get the full mindboggling scale of the alleged super-theft in question.
In total, the DoJ alleged more than US$4.5 billion was taken from 1MDB by high-level fund officials and their associates. In a statement released along with the court documents, Acting US Attorney Sandra R. Brown explains:
“These cases involve billions of dollars that should have been used to help the people of Malaysia, but instead was used by a small number of individuals to fuel their astonishing greed. The misappropriation of 1MDB funds was accomplished with an extravagant web of lies.”
Najib has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the scandal, issuing a number of unconvincing and at times conflicting explanations as to how the huge sums of money ended up in the personal accounts of himself and his family members.
His government has avoided doing a proper investigation into the matter and in 2015, when the allegations surrounding the US$680 million in his personal account surfaced, he went as far as firing the attorney general who had been investigating him, along with a deputy who had been among his most prominent critics. In 2016, one credible report into the matter, conducted by the Auditor General, was classified under the Official Secrets Act and was not willingly released to the public.
By contrast, the DoJ documents are fairly damning in their detailed and evidence-based untangling of this “global labyrinth of multi-layered financial transactions allegedly used to divert billions of dollars from the people of Malaysia and fund the co-conspirators’ lavish lifestyles.”
The investigation, painstakingly compiled over years of digging, has brought to light bank transfer and company documentation, interviews with executives and officials, as well as information from letters, emails, texts and phone conversations, all dated and corroborated, to demonstrate exactly how the money was stolen and where it went.
It is between these two sources that the Malaysian people must now choose who to believe.
Whether to believe the reluctant assertions and denials of their Prime Minister or the meticulous and exhaustive investigation of the US Department of Justice.
Whoever they choose could have grave consequences for Malaysian politics as the renewed accusations come at a time when Najib was expected to call a snap election later this year.
The Malaysian people may get to give their verdict on the allegations at the ballot box. Let’s just hope they’re listened to.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent