By meeting a repayment deadline for the first time in months, Malaysia’s troubled sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, seems to have staved off a debt crisis that threatened the country’s entire banking system.
Reports in Kuala Lumpur say Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan came up with the $693 million that the fund, known as 1MDB, was due to repay by February 18 to the country’s largest bank, Malayan Banking Bhd, and a smaller financial house, RHB Capital Bhd.
While the payment appears to have given 1MDB some breathing space after the fund repeatedly failed to meet debt repayment deadlines, it has done nothing to remove questions about the $14.5 billion in debts the fund has accumulated since its founding in 2009.
1MDB was created as a vehicle for investment of state profits from the country’s oil and gas resources. But it has borrowed heavily from local banks to invest in power plants. 1MDB plans a public offering of shares in these assets some time this year, with the aim of raising around $4 billion.
But from the start, 1MDB has been surrounded by questions and scandal. Many of the questions stem from the fact that the fund’s “chief economic adviser” is Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Although no direct lines are drawn, media and political criticism of the travails of 1MDB frequently include references to the extraordinary amounts of money being spent on property and luxuries by Najib’s family and close relatives.
At the same time, a flamboyant young Malaysian financier, Jho Low, who persuaded Najib to set up 1MDB, has bought multimillion-dollar properties in the United States on behalf of the Prime Minister’s stepson, film producer Riza Aziz.
Much of the significant reporting on the issues around the management of 1MDB has been done by The Edge, Malaysia’s bestselling business newspaper, which is owned by Tong Kooi Ong. Tong is well known in Canada as the owner of Toronto-listed Taiga Building Products Ltd., the largest wholesale distributor of building materials in Canada and California. Tong has filed a suit against Low, who Tong believes was behind a defamatory blog attack after The Edge published details of 1MDB’s troubled internal affairs.
The latest reports from Kuala Lumpur are that all employees of 1MDB have been ordered to take their office-issued computers and smartphones to the company’s information technology department to have their hard drives wiped clean. The company says the move is to counter an attempted hacking of the fund’s system. But some observers have noted that when Tong’s legal action gets to examination for discovery, there will be nothing in 1MDB’s records for his lawyers to find.
Tong isn’t the only one pushing back against blog attacks associated with criticism of 1MDB. Another is the Prime Minister’s brother, banker Nazir Razak, who has also launched legal action against Low. Nazir, Head of CIMB, Malaysia’s fastest-growing bank, has had a very public falling-out with his brother Najib over the flaunting of excessive wealth by the Prime Minister and his wife. In January last year Nazir wrote a long article for an online business news site about their father, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak, and his absolute refusal to use public funds for his own and his family’s personal expenses.
The 1MDB questions also spark memories of unresolved questions around the 2006 murder of Mongolian model and interpreter Altantuya Shaariibuu – who allegedly was Najib’s ex-mistress – by Najib’s bodyguards. Najib was then the Defence Minister, and French investigators have found his policy adviser, Abdul Razak Baginda, was paid over $200 million in bribes by the French manufacturers of three submarines Malaysia was buying for $2 billion.
Jonathan Manthorpe (email@example.com) has been an international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years.
Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.
Across much of the world, populations suffer daily shakedowns by the police. At roadblocks, market stalls and entrances to government buildings, thugs in uniform gather “like spear fishermen hunting trout in a narrows,” as Sarah Chayes writes. But that isn’t the half of it. Globally, the three most important desiderata of our age — security, resilience and poverty reduction — are consistently being hollowed out by structural theft on a much larger scale, operating across corporations, governments, military establishments and civil services.
One key reason the United States and its allies have struggled to establish sustainable democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the governments of those countries are mired in graft, caught in a mafia-like system in which money flows upward. The same goes for parts of Africa and Asia, and most of the former Soviet Union. The tenure of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is being defined by his war on corruption, and in December President Hassan Rouhani of Iran spoke out against corruption there.
Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.
In a limited sense, this is Chayes’s own story too: A former reporter for NPR in Algeria and Afghanistan, she abandoned journalism to work for a nongovernmental organization in Kandahar, then was a social entrepreneur there on her own account, finally becoming an adviser on corruption to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. She (right) is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Her personal narrative is even more complicated than any summary might suggest. In 2001, Chayes helped found a charity “of unclear mission,” run by President Hamid Karzai’s Baltimore-based elder brother, Qayum, about whom she has this to say: “Not for years would I begin systematically comparing his seductively incisive words with his deeds. Welded to his brother’s interests, he behaved in ways that contradicted his language so starkly that for a long time I had difficulty processing the inconsistency.”
Elsewhere “those brothers” (there are six besides Hamid Karzai himself) are characterized as “self-serving,” with the younger half-brother Ahmed Wali singled out as someone “who stole land, imprisoned people for ransom, appointed key public officials, ran vast drug trafficking networks and private militias, and wielded ISAF like a weapon against people who stood up to him.” This, mind you, was also someone at whose house Chayes had dinner one night in 2003, in the course of which she watched C.I.A. officers “hand him a tinfoil-wrapped package of bills.”
Her experience corroborates an October 27, 2009, report in The New York Times, which stated that Ahmed Wali Karzai was on the C.I.A. payroll. It also prompts one to wonder at Senator John Kerry’s response at the time. “We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumors,” he said.
Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated by a police official and longtime confidant on July 12, 2011. About six years before that, Chayes severed her own relationship with the Karzais. After leaving for a few months, she returned to Kandahar in May 2005 with a project that, on the surface, could never smell of corruption and intrigue.
Armed with an oil press and $25,000 from Oprah Winfrey, she set up a cooperative producing scented soap and beauty products, taking advantage of Afghanistan’s horticultural riches. But she soon found that even this innocuous activity put her on the sharp end of corruption, as she tried to do simple things like deposit money in a bank without paying a bribe for the privilege of doing so. So she began, in an amateurish way, to develop ideas for limiting corruption in places like Afghanistan.
Very quickly, the amateur became professional. Chayes was soon called upon by NATO and ISAF to give expert briefings with a focus on anti-corruption measures. “ ‘Sally the Soap-Maker Gives an Ops Brief’ was how I jokingly came to refer to my main presentation,” she writes. This led to a job with ISAF, and then another as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flitting between Washington and Kabul as the United States laboriously and somewhat unwillingly developed an anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan.
Any such strategy was bound to conflict with political and military exigencies, which presumably explains Kerry’s response to the report in The Times. But Chayes’s Afghan interlocutors told her again and again that poor governance was actually what was perpetuating the conflict, with graft generating disenchantment and driving people toward the Taliban. “Western officials,” she writes, “habitually flipped the sequence: First let’s establish security, then we can worry about governance.”
Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, took Western inaction on corruption as approval. Aid just added to the problem, in Chayes’s view: “Development resources passed through a corrupt system not only reinforced that system by helping to fund it but also inflamed the feelings of injustice that were driving people toward the insurgency.”
Chayes refers to the body of medieval and Renaissance advice literature known as “Mirrors for Princes” to contextualize current abuses of government. She begins with the most famous mirror of all, Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but it is lesser-known figures like William of Pagula and John of Salisbury who give her the most ammunition. She also uses the “Siyasat Nameh” — the “Book of Politics” — of the 11th-century Persian administrator Nizam al-Mulk.
Among the counsels that Nizam al-Mulk gave his sultan was: Listen to the grievances of your subjects directly, without intermediaries. Chayes argues that the voices of a majority of Afghans are drowned out by the Taliban on one side and by the Karzai government on the other. ISAF, she says, listened only to the government.
Many of the other countries Chayes brings into this chatty study (“John of Salisbury, as usual, nailed it”) show similar patterns. In each case, there are slightly different “variations on a theme,” as she has it, ranging from the military-kleptocratic complex (Egypt) to the bureaucratic kleptocracy (Tunisia), the post-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy (Uzbekistan) and the resource kleptocracy (Nigeria). In her epilogue, titled “Self-Reflection,” Chayes also discusses Western countries and the global financial crisis of 2008.
This is an important book that should be required reading for officials in foreign service, and for those working in commerce or the military. The story will interest the nonspecialist reader too, though the balance of exciting narrative, academic discourse and policy-wonk-speak will unsettle some. Indeed, Chayes touches on how language itself becomes corrupt. The standard terminology of military and diplomatic engagement (and much corporate rhetoric) is often evasive, with usage reflecting differences in value systems — as when assassination by drone is described as “targeted killing.”
While I am in full agreement with what Chayes says, I found her own prose style raising my hackles on occasion, with its effortful interpolations of color (“the legendary but painfully dilapidated blue and white Mediterranean port city of Algiers”), verbs on steroids (“I wheeled and strode over to our battered red pickup truck, clambered aboard, and roared off to the bank”), and its chapters that begin with such sentences as “Wait a second.” I did, but I wish she had.
Giles Foden is the author of “The Last King of Scotland.”
MY COMMENT:Will this happen in Malaysia? Will the excesses of Malaysia’s self-styled First Lady of Malaysia, which are condoned by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, be investigated by MACC Chief Commissioner and his goons? The Prime Minister’s abuse of his office, for example, the use of our government’s executive jet by his wife, our First Lady, for her holiday and shopping trips is rationalised by those who are entrusted with the duty to fight corruption. The answer is a resounding NO.
The MACC will not act because this now infamous couple is above the Law. Even the Inspector-General of Police and the Attorney-General will not act in the public interest. In Israel, their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now being investigated (read the article below). Like the Israeli Prime Minister, our 1PM should be reminded that he is expected to “serve his voters, not abuse their trust”. Corruption and abuse of public trust will not be accepted by most countries which practice good governance. –Din Merican
Netanyahu forgot he’s supposed to serve his voters, not abuse their trust
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to delay publication of a state comptroller’s report on the management of his residences until after next months’ election, so as to blunt its sting and reduce its public impact. Netanyahu and his representatives, who knew how severe the report’s contents were, almost succeeded in this goal, thanks to State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s willingness to cooperate with them. Only public pressure, accompanied by media reports about issues that the comptroller preferred not to deal with in this report, brought him to change his plans and release the report yesterday.
The situation described in the report is embarrassing. The person who has headed the government for the last six years appears to have no shame in his behavior. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, forgot that an elected official is supposed to serve his voters, not abuse the trust they gave him.
The things described in the report are outrageous. The list is long and includes, inter alia, an instruction to cancel tax payments, circumventing the regulations to employ an electrician who was a family friend, sending employees out to do the Netanyahus’ personal shopping without reimbursing them, wastefulness and hedonism at the state’s expense.
This is shameful behavior, but that conclusion by itself is insufficient, because there are also prima facie indications of criminal behavior. Until now, Netanyahu has not only enjoyed the help of the comptroller, but also, and especially, that of the men who occupy the two most senior positions in the law enforcement system, both of whom are his appointees – Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Both have gone out of their way to thwart criminal proceedings against Netanyahu, or even proceedings that could lead in that direction and end up tagging him as one of the chief suspects.
This intolerable situation must end. Any other person who was the subject of findings like those in the comptroller’s report would have been put under criminal investigation, in addition to the torrent of public criticism that would have rained down on him. The box of excuses in Weinstein and Nitzan’s offices has run out. The comptroller’s report and the material that substantiates it; the civil suit filed by the former housekeeper at the Prime Minister’s residence, Meni Naftali; the admission by the Netanyahus that they pocketed 4,000 shekels (about $1,000) in bottle deposits – all these constitute clear grounds for an immediate criminal investigation.
The proximity to the election should not prevent such a probe. On the contrary, the Police should make haste to finish this simple investigation within the next four weeks, so that the conclusions they pass on to the prosecution can also be placed before the voters.
QUICK TAKE: The former US Ambassador to Malaysia John R Malott wrote an interesting article about Martin Luther King and the poor Malays. There are many points that he had raised which really knock the nail on the head.
He used the term “useful idiots” the term that Lenin had coined to describe certain sections of the community. In other words, this group is no more than a group that had been used by the group in power in order to maintain that power.
He was describing about the rich whites in the US making use of the poor whites to maintain their economic status. He equated these whites as being like UMNO Baru in Malaysia. UMNO Baru had been using the poor Malays as its tool to retain power. It had used the mantra that these poor Malays need UMNO Baru to protect them.
But the poor Malays had remained poor even under over half a century of UMNO Baru’s protection. Just like the rich whites in the US putting the blame on the blacks and others for the bleak condition of the poor whites, UMNO Baru had also utilized this tactic to trick the poor Malays. Its leaders started blaming the non-Malays for the predicament suffered by these poor Malays.
It is indeed interesting to note that the rich and the powerful all over in the capitalist world use the very same method to deceive the people. This hapless group will again elect the very same people who had betrayed them into power and position. Hence. Lenin had termed these people as “useful idiots”.
Malott quoted what King had said in his speech on the steps of the State Capitol Building:
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
“How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How long then will this deceit of the poor Malays go on? From the look of it this will not be very long. A new generation that had managed to free themselves from this mental block had already emerged. The number of these “poor Malays” who have become “useful idiots” to UMNO and UMNO Baru is reducing itself. But to maintain the status quo, gangsters and agent provocateurs are being used.
NGOs consisting of those who had been trapped by ethnic and religious distortions had been given all the leeway by the government to act as they please to create tension thus frightening whatever poor Malays still left to forever seek the so called protection of UMNO Baru.
His politically motivated imprisonment will galvanise the Poor Malays
But there are other factors that will destroy the faith of the remaining poor Malays. One of the main factors will be the injustice meted out to Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. His imprisonment on a case which is touted as being politically motivated will cause UMNO Baru to lose this “useful idiots” group as its election asset.
A similar transaction was playing out on the other side of the country. Mr. Low bought a contemporary mansion in Beverly Hills for $17.5 million, then turned around and sold it, once again to the Prime Minister’s stepson. (Read a summary of this article in Malay.)
Mr. Low also went shopping at the Time Warner Center condominiums overlooking Central Park. He toured a 76th-floor penthouse, once home to the celebrity couple Jay Z and Beyoncé, then in early 2011 used yet another shell company to buy it for $30.55 million, one of the highest prices ever in the building.
At the time, Mr. Low said he represented a group of investors, according to two people with direct knowledge of the transaction. Mr. Low recently told The New York Times that he had not purchased the penthouse for investors, and that it was owned by his family’s trust.
One thing is clear: As with nearly two-thirds of the apartments at the Time Warner Center, a dark-glass symbol of New York’s luxury condominium boom, the people behind Penthouse 76B cannot be found in any public real estate records. The trail ends with Jho Low.
Mr. Low, 33, is a skillful, and more than occasionally flamboyant, iteration of the sort of operative essential to the economy of the global superrich. Just as many of the wealthy use shell companies to keep the movement of money opaque, they also use people like Mr. Low. Whether shopping for new business opportunities or real estate, he has often done so on behalf of investors or, as he likes to say, friends. Whether the money belongs to others or is his own, the lines are frequently blurry, the identity of the buyer elusive.
Mr. Low’s lavish spending has raised eyebrows and questions from Kuala Lumpur to New York, where he has made a boldface name for himself as a “whale” at clubs like the Pink Elephant and 1Oak. The New York Post once called him “the mystery man of city club scene,” adding, “Speculation is brewing over where Low is getting his money from.”
One answer resides at least indirectly in his relationship, going back to his school days in London, with the family of Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Mr. Low has played an important role in bringing Middle Eastern money into numerous deals involving the Malaysian government, and he helped set up, and has continued to advise, a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund that the Prime Minister oversees.
Now, that relationship has become part of an uproar gathering around Mr. Najib and threatening his already shaky hold on power. In Parliament, in political cartoons and in social media, Mr. Najib’s critics tend to argue that he is too close to Mr. Low.
“We are very concerned,” Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a member of Malaysian royalty and an independent-minded elder statesman of Mr. Najib’s party, said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur last summer. “We want people of integrity to be up there.”
Increasingly, the glare turns to Mr. Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, and so to Mr. Aziz’s friendship with Mr. Low. With Mr. Low’s help, Mr. Aziz runs a Hollywood company that produced the films “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Dumb and Dumber To.” He has spent tens of millions more on the homes in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, transactions that involved Mr. Low, The Times found.
“That’s a lot of money,” Sivarasa Rasiah, an opposition lawmaker, said of Mr. Aziz’s spending. He added, “Every U.S. report on him talks about family wealth. Family who?”
While Mr. Aziz has previously said he is personally wealthy, he declined to explain how he had acquired his money. Mr. Najib’s office, in a statement, said, “The Prime Minister does not track how much Mr. Aziz earns or how such earnings are reinvested.” As for the prime minister himself, the statement said he had “received inheritance.”
In a statement provided by a spokesman, Mr. Low, whose full name is Low Taek Jho, said he “is a friend of Mr. Riza Aziz and his family.” His real estate transactions with Mr. Aziz were made “on an arm’s-length basis,” he said, adding that he had never purchased real estate in the United States for the Prime Minister’s family or “engaged in any wrongful conduct regarding any financial matters for the Prime Minister and his family.”
At the Time Warner Center, The Times found, the 76th-floor penthouse, purchased through a shell company called 80 Columbus Circle (NYC) L.L.C., is one of at least a dozen that can be traced to people with close ties to current or former high-ranking foreign officials, or to the officials themselves.
According to one member of the condominium board there, while the board understood that the penthouse had been bought for investors, it did not ascertain their identities. At the Park Laurel, where Mr. Najib’s stepson owns, the board did not respond to questions about whether it had examined the financing of the purchase.
In fact, in-depth scrutiny of real estate deals is not required. International anticorruption organizations have criticized this lack of inquiry — not just by real estate brokers and condo boards, but by banks, lawyers and the federal government.
“People should ask the questions, ‘Why is it that this individual is bringing in millions of dollars into America, and how was it acquired?’” said Charmian Gooch, co-founder of Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization that works against corruption around the world.
The Making of a Financier
To mention Mr. Low in Malaysia is to conjure the image of a baby-faced young man in rimless glasses and a loose black V-neck, holding a magnum of Cristal and surrounded by celebrities. But if he is sometimes derided as a tabloid party boy who once flew a group of bottle girls from New York to Malaysia, the reality is that the clubbing life, for Mr. Low, was actually a way to build a booming business managing money for his friends.
“I think a relationship with an investor is not just about managing their money well,” he said in an extensive interview with The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, in 2010. “Although it is not in my job scope, but if my friend says he wants a flight urgently to somewhere or he wants a dinner reservation at a well-known place, I’ll do my best to make it happen.” He also said, “I am usually the concierge service that arranges everything, and thus my name is all over the place.”
Around George Town, on Penang Island, where Jho grew up, the Lows were seen as a family of somewhat deflated affluence, according to several businessmen who have known them for years. The father, Larry, was an executive for an investment holding company called MWE Holdings, but he split with his partner in the mid-1990s and faded from the local business scene. Still only a teenager, Jho, the youngest of three children, emerged as the family’s best hope for the future.
Riza (left) and Mr. Low (right)
There was money for education abroad, and in London, while attending the ancient and elite Harrow school, Mr. Low became friends with Mr. Najib’s stepson, Mr. Aziz, who was studying at the London School of Economics. He also grew close to Mr. Aziz’s mother, Rosmah Mansor, who stayed for months at a time in an apartment she kept there.
In college, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Low kept up his ties back home by running a Malaysian student group. But he also came to know the children of prominent Jordanian and Kuwaiti families. Even before graduating, he was managing money for what he later described as “my family and close Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian friends.”
After college, many of his early business deals were based in Malaysia — helping a Kuwaiti bank purchase a high-rise complex called the Oval, and bringing Middle Eastern money into the country to finance a commercial zone in the south and a new financial district in the capital. By 2007, he had formed an investment group that included a Malaysian prince, a Kuwaiti sheikh and a friend from the United Arab Emirates who went on to become Ambassador to the United States and Mexico.
Two years later, he was pitching his idea for a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. His plan was to invest public money for the public good through a fund tied to one of the country’s oil-producing states, and so he began wooing the Sultan of Terengganu, who was also Malaysia’s king under the nation’s rotating monarchy.
It was all about making connections, making friends. Success, he told The Star, is “attributable to being at the right place and right time and meeting the right people coupled with a trusting relationship.”
In April 2009, those ingredients all came together for Mr. Low. The stepfather of his friend Mr. Aziz became Prime Minister of Malaysia.
A Political Legacy
Mr. Najib, 61, has a deep pedigree in Malaysian politics. His father, Tun Razak, was the country’s second Prime Minister, in the 1970s. His uncle was its third. His cousin is now Defense Minister.
Mr. Najib has risen through the political ranks: member of Parliament at 23; Chief Minister of his home state (Pahang); Minister of Education, Defense and Finance; and Deputy Prime Minister.
The family is tightly intertwined with Malaysia’s leading political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), whose long hold on power owes much to its close relationship with the country’s business elite. That closeness, in turn, has helped engender a culture of corruption, said Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister of legal affairs and judicial reform who served alongside Mr. Najib. Inflated government contracts are the norm, widely accepted because recipients simply turn around and donate to the party, he said.
“You know why corruption is very high in Malaysia?” he said. “It’s because the party in power is synonymous with the state.”
As The Times wrote in the first part of this series, while shell companies like limited liability companies and trusts can be used for secrecy, they are frequently used for other purposes, including avoiding exposure to lawsuits or double taxation. They are also used in multiparty real estate transactions. This was the case several years ago with family members of a reporter on this project, Louise Story. And they are used in inheritance matters and investment strategies.
That point was underscored in the State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report, which said, “Officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity” and noted “a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism within the governing coalition and in government institutions.”
There have been no proven corruption allegations against Mr. Najib. However, he has been dogged by questions, seized upon by his political opponents, stemming from a long-running bribery inquiry in France involving submarines he commissioned from a French company while he was Defense Minister.
The French national police found documents showing that the submarine company paid more than $100 million to a company controlled by one of Mr. Najib’s close associates. In addition, one police document says, without elaboration, that Mr. Najib demanded money in exchange for a 2001 meeting in Paris.
Malaysian officials said the payments to the company controlled by Mr. Najib’s associate were for “support and coordination services”; the Prime Minister’s Office said he received no payments and did not demand any.
Mr. Najib, who earns an annual salary of about $100,000 as Prime Minister, has been battered by news media reports of his wife’s lavish spending. A notable episode involved the Birkin bags: A series of photos that went viral on social media in Malaysia showed Ms. Rosmah holding at least nine of the purses. They typically cost between $9,000 and $150,000 apiece.
Ariff Sabri, an aide to Mr. Najib from 2000 to 2004 who joined the opposition in 2012, said the Prime Minister kept “piles and piles” of ringgit bills stacked in his safe. And invoices and other documents obtained by The Times show millions of dollars in jewelry ordered for Ms. Rosmah in Hong Kong in 2008 and 2009 — diamond and emerald rings, and diamond, emerald and ruby bracelets.
The Prime Minister’s office said, “Neither any money spent on travel, nor any jewelry purchases, nor the alleged contents of any safes are unusual for a person of the Prime Minister’s position, responsibilities and legacy family assets.”
For some people who have long known Mr. Najib, the lavish lifestyle that appeared to evolve with his second marriage, to Ms. Rosmah in 1987, has been a surprising — even dismaying — turn for a modest technocrat.
Last year, Mr. Najib’s younger brother, Nazir, wrote a newspaper column that tacitly jabbed at the current Prime Minister by praising the frugality of their father, a career government official who died in office at age 53.
When he and his brothers had asked for a swimming pool at the Prime Minister’s residence, Mr. Nazir wrote, “My father made it abundantly clear that while Seri Taman may be our home, the house belonged to the government and, hence, to the people. Anything spent on it would have to come from public funds, and there was no way he was going to allow the state coffers to be depleted on something as frivolous as a swimming pool. ‘What will the people think?’ he thundered.”
Mr. Low’s business romance with Malaysia’s King, it turned out, was short lived. But the new Prime Minister, Mr. Najib, was happy to have a way to benefit the nation writ large, and the sovereign wealth fund soon morphed into a new one, called 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
A billboard in Kuala Lumpur for Malaysia’s strategic development company. Mr. Najib has faced questions about 1MDB.Credit Samsul Said/Reuters
Mr. Najib became Chairman of the board of Advisers of 1MDB, which calls itself a “strategic development company.” A close Penang friend of Mr. Low’s father became a director, and two of Mr. Low’s friends joined the staff. Mr. Low himself was not given an official role, but he is regularly consulted on its actions, according to three people who have had regular dealings with 1MDB but requested anonymity to preserve relationships.
In his statement to The Times, Mr. Low played down his role in 1MDB, saying that “from time to time and without receiving compensation,” he has given his views on various matters.
While Mr. Low has no official position with the fund, in 2012 it emerged in British court documents that he had presented a letter of support from 1MDB in his investors’ unsuccessful bid for the hotel group that includes Claridge’s. He also said the financing would be fully underwritten by Malaysian government investment funds, according to the documents.
Mr. Low and 1MDB also had dealings with an oil-drilling company called PetroSaudi International that had been founded by a Saudi businessman and a Saudi prince.
Soon after its creation, 1MDB invested $1 billion in a joint venture with PetroSaudi. A few months later, a PetroSaudi subsidiary purchased a Malaysian holding company, UBG, in which Mr. Low and his investors held a substantial stake, according to public records. News media reports did not say so, but corporate records reviewed by The Times show that a director of the PetroSaudi subsidiary was a close friend of Mr. Low named Geh Choh Hun.
PetroSaudi has told the Malaysian press that the deals were unrelated. And both men said Mr. Geh was not representing Mr. Low’s interest in the deal.
By 2011, 1MDB pulled out of the PetroSaudi joint venture. The proceeds, however, were not immediately returned to Malaysia. Instead, they ended up in a Cayman Islands company and managed by an investment firm that 1MDB only recently identified. The money was recently returned to 1MDB, the fund has said.
The Caymans maneuver has stirred an outcry even within Mr. Najib’s own party. “I don’t understand why the government carries on with 1MDB,” Daim Zainuddin, a former Finance Minister, said in an interview. “To me, it’s quite frightening because you don’t know what they’re doing,” he said, adding, “Why must government money be parked?”
There have been other criticisms as well — that the fund has taken on large amounts of debt and that some of its investments have benefited large donors to Mr. Najib’s party.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that 1MDB was run by professional managers, and that many blue-chip companies do business with funds registered in the Caymans. The criticisms, it added, “need to be examined for political motivation.”
A year ago, the accounting firm KPMG refused to sign off on 1MDB’s financials, according to Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Chairman of Parliament’s Audit Committee. KPMG declined to comment for this article. The fund, which described the parting as amicable, found a new auditor: Deloitte.
Mr. Nur Jazlan, a member of Mr. Najib’s party, said the Deloitte blessing gave him comfort. “They wouldn’t sanction the accounts if there was a problem,” he said. Still, he acknowledged that “conditions are fertile” for fraud, given the scant oversight of 1MDB.
“Yes, they make money, but should they make more money?” Mr. Nur Jazlan said. Yet as long as 1MDB shows a profit, he added, it is unlikely that there will be any serious inquiry into whether money went missing. “Money makes money,” he said. “You can basically hide a lot of things in there as well. Then, the party doing scrutiny of management is the board, which is appointed by who? And chaired by who? The Prime Minister.”
Luxury Home Purchases
The year before Mr. Low showed up at the Time Warner Center, the New York news media reported the $23.98 million purchase of an apartment in the Park Laurel, a few blocks away on West 63rd Street.
The purchase, the reports said, had been made by a shell company on behalf of two residents of Switzerland — Peter Edward Chadney and Simone Cécile von Graffenried Simperl. Those reports were mistaken. The Swiss “buyers” were actually Rothschild bankers. The real party behind the shell company was Mr. Low, whose spokesman acknowledged to The Times that the condo had been bought by a trust benefiting his family.
Nearly three years later, the Lows sold it to Mr. Aziz’s shell company for $33.5 million in cash — a 40 percent appreciation.
The sale involved a string of shell companies. In one spot on the property transfer, Mr. Aziz is listed as the “sole director” of Sorcem Investments, a British Virgin Islands company that was behind the shell company that bought the Park Laurel condo.
The transfer of the Beverly Hills house from Mr. Low to Mr. Aziz was even more opaque.
After Mr. Low’s shell company, 912 North Hillcrest Road (BH) L.L.C., paid $17.5 million for the home — 11,573 square feet, with five bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, private gardens and a glowing pyramid in the reflecting pool — his trust sold ownership of that shell company to a corporate entity controlled by Mr. Aziz, both men acknowledged to The Times.
Legally, however, the property itself never changed hands. The same shell company appears as owner in the public property records of Los Angeles County. It is as if nothing ever happened.
Mr. Aziz confirmed that he owned the New York condo as well as the Beverly Hills house, which is undergoing extensive rebuilding.
Mr. Low said the transactions were done at fair market value. He sold the Beverly Hills property, he said, because he had found another nearby. That house cost $39 million.
Back in New York, the Time Warner Center was a natural destination because friends of Mr. Low already owned apartments there. There was also a prominent Malaysian — the brother of Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary, a major beneficiary of government contracts and a generous backer of Mr. Najib’s political party.
With the penthouses on the top five floors of the north tower came wraparound views — the Catskills far off to the northwest, the Statue of Liberty just beyond the southern tip of Manhattan, and Central Park right next door. Mr. Low went to view Penthouse 76B with a retinue of women and told people involved in the deal that he would pay $30.55 million — all cash, as in his other real estate purchases.
One member of the condominium board and another person with direct knowledge of the deal said they believed that Mr. Low was buying for a group of investors. One of them recalled Mr. Low saying that a main investor was the family of Prime Minister Najib.
In its statement to The Times, the prime minister’s office said Mr. Najib had no financial interest or any agreement related to any Time Warner condominiums.
Mr. Low’s statement said that the condo was owned by his family’s trust and that he and other family members “stay there from time to time when they are in New York.”
The professionals who helped Mr. Low buy the Time Warner condo included the same Rothschild bankers as in the Park Laurel condo transaction, as well as John Opar, a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, who did not respond to inquiries. One of the bankers, Ms. Simperl, said she could not discuss the client, who in the same time period briefly owned a $33 million condo at the Trump International, across the street from the Time Warner Center.
Janice Chang, the broker the Douglas Elliman firm identified as representing the buyer, said, “We work with a lot of people; sometimes we know them and sometimes we don’t.” She added: “They’re very confidential. We try not to pry.”
Hello to Hollywood
Mr. Aziz’s film company, Red Granite Pictures, was largely unheard-of when it took over the financing of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” announcing its intentions with a party at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, complete with a fireworks extravaganza and concert by Kanye West. The Hollywood Reporter called it “an audacious hello to the movie industry.”
Neither of its founders had the kind of résumé that reflected the experience, or the income, to bankroll a movie company. Mr. Aziz, now 38, had been a junior-level banker at HSBC. His partner, Joey McFarland, was a small-time investor from Kentucky whose entertainment-business apprenticeship included booking paid party appearances for celebrities like Ms. Hilton.
All of which led to a certain amount of curiosity in Hollywood about who was financing Red Granite.Over time, the accounts seemed to change.
Interviewing a job candidate early on, Mr. Aziz said the financing came from “sovereign wealth,” according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.
When Irwin Winkler, an executive producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street” inquired, he was told that Red Granite had “a backer in Malaysia,” he recalled in an interview. He was introduced to the backer, and it was Mr. Low. “He’s the face, as far as I could see, of the financing,” Mr. Winkler said.
At the film’s December 2013 premiere party at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, several people said, Mr. Low had been introduced to them as the financier. He is thanked in the film’s credits.
The Malaysian explanations ended about a year ago, after Red Granite’s financing became the subject of persistent questions, especially from The Sarawak Report, a London-based news site that focuses on Malaysia.
Mr. Low says he has not put money into Red Granite or its films. And last summer, a new money man emerged. In an interview with The Times for an article on Red Granite, Mr. Aziz said the principal backer was Mohamed Ahmed Badawy al-Husseiny, chief executive of an Abu Dhabi government-owned company, Aabar Investments, that has done deals with Mr. Low. Mr. Aziz noted that “The Wolf of Wall Street” had received New York tax breaks. He said there were other investors, but recently declined to identify them. “There is no Malaysian money” in Red Granite’s films, he said.
Even so, both Mr. Low and Mr. Husseiny have been involved with Malaysian government funds, including 1MDB.
Mr. Husseiny’s company, Aabar, had been a partner with Mr. Low in the failed Claridge’s bid that was backed by 1MDB. Aabar has also done business with affiliates of a company called SRC International, which was spun off from 1MDB and is now owned by the Ministry of Finance.
Aabar also did a deal with a company outside Malaysia that SRC had helped create, according to two people involved with the transaction. Money from that deal was then set aside to be paid out to other corporate entities. That money was described as consulting fees for Mr. Husseiny and Mr. Low, the people involved said. Similar arrangements existed in other SRC deals, they said they were told by people at SRC.
SRC’s Managing Director, a friend of Mr. Low named Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil, said that to the best of his knowledge, neither Mr. Low nor Mr. Husseiny had received fees from deals involving SRC or its affiliates. Mr. Low said that he had not consulted for SRC International Sdn Bhd, the Malaysia-based SRC.
In a response from his lawyer, Mr. Husseiny did not answer questions about SRC. His investment in Red Granite, he said, was “personal money.”
Discontent at Home
Golf Diplomacy back fired at Home
Just before Christmas, while visiting Hawaii, Mr. Najib played golf with one of his international allies — President Obama.
It was “golf diplomacy,” the Prime Minister said when he was criticized in Malaysia for golfing while the country suffered through its worst flooding in many years.
It was also the continuation of Mr. Najib’s long effort to draw his country closer to Washington. Earlier last year, Mr. Obama made an official visit to Malaysia, the first by an American President since 1966. Afterward, he and Mr. Najib said they would “elevate” relations to a “comprehensive partnership” of political and economic ties.
A White House spokesman did not respond to inquiries about the president’s relationship with Mr. Najib.
Even as Mr. Najib’s diplomatic standing has risen — Malaysia was recently elected to a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council — his political star has been falling back home.
Mr. Najib has positioned himself as a forward-looking moderate. Yet on issues ranging from the freedom of political speech to longstanding laws that favor the Malay majority over the country’s ethnic minorities, he has not made good on promised reforms that would run afoul of his more conservative opponents. One long-running case that has rankled critics at home and abroad is his government’s prosecution of a leading opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges; a ruling on Mr. Anwar’s appeal is expected any day.
In the 2013 elections, the opposition won the popular vote for the first time in more than four decades. Mr. Najib kept his job only because the allocation of seats in Parliament was weighted to favor rural areas, where his party’s coalition was strong. Within hours of the announcement, crowds filled the streets of Kuala Lumpur in protest.
One of the toughest areas for Mr. Najib’s party was Mr. Low’s home state, Penang.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Mr. Low helped a newly formed group, the 1Malaysia Penang Welfare Club. The club gave out free food and beer, as well as “lucky draw” tickets for bicycles and other prizes, and Mr. Low flew in musicians like Busta Rhymes and Ludacris for what was described as a nonpolitical concert.
The club’s leader was Mr. Low’s close friend, Mr. Geh, who said the mission of the group was charity. But opposition figures in Penang said the prizes and concert were aimed at recruiting votes for Mr. Najib’s party.
“Jho wanted to show that he could call the shots in Penang,” said Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister and an opposition member.
In the end, the governing party won only a quarter of the parliamentary races in Penang, and Mr. Lim was re-elected.
Since then, Mr. Najib’s standing has grown only more precarious, as criticism has spread from the opposition to factions of his own party.
Over the summer, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led the country for 22 years and retains considerable influence, publicly denounced Mr. Najib and called on him to reform 1MDB. And while speculation that Mr. Najib would be pushed out at the annual party congress in November proved unfounded, weeks later, an official from his party called for a police investigation of 1MDB and said he would file a complaint against the Prime Minister if no action was taken.
In 2008, as Mr. Low was working to bring Middle Eastern money to Malaysia, he helped a Malaysian bank, RHB Capital, raise money from the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, where Mr. Arul soon became an executive. The next year, Mr. Arul joined a board of RHB.
In mid-January, the Malaysian press reported that Mr. Arul said that any insinuations about connections to “certain individuals” were unfair. “My C.V. should speak for itself,” he said.
An Evolving Image
Last September, Mr. Najib traveled to the United States for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. He and his wife usually stay at the Time Warner Center when they are in New York, and they did so this time as well — at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Mr. Low was in town, too — for a Social Good Summit sponsored by his foundation, featuring speakers like Melinda Gates, Ed Norton and Alicia Keys — and he and the prime minister engaged in a bit of a pas de deux at the Mandarin Oriental: Mr. Najib arrived in the hotel lobby with his entourage and went upstairs; within minutes, Mr. Low followed for what he later described as a “courtesy social call.” Less than 10 minutes later, the two men came downstairs and took separate exits from the building.
Lately, Mr. Low has been emphasizing that he is investing his family’s money and no longer managing money for investors and friends. He has been broadening his family’s business portfolio, making high-profile deals with the Abu Dhabi Gvernment and other Middle Eastern investors. In 2012, his family joined a group that bought EMI Music Publishing for $2.2 billion, and the next year, it was a principal investor in the $660 million purchase of the Park Lane Hotel in New York.
After portraying himself for years as a friend of people with money — and saying in the 2010 interview with The Star that he came from a “fairly O.K. family” — he has started to say that he was born with it himself. Last fall, he did an interview with The Wall Street Journal, which reported that his grandfather had made a fortune in mining and liquor investments in Thailand. The Journal’s account — which said the Low family had a $1.75 billion fortune and called Mr. Low a “scion” — was immediately picked up in Malaysia.
As befits the modern scion, Mr. Low has lately begun trading in another asset class: contemporary art. His entry into the art market has generated buzz both for his youth and for the fact that he has become such a significant force so fast. Last summer, he made the ART news list of the world’s 200 leading private collectors.
The art market is even more opaque than real estate, so that list is based not on actual sales data but on the assessments of people in the industry who know about collectors’ holdings. According to two people familiar with Mr. Low’s activities in the art world, though, he has taken a liking to pop art.
“Inserting a Jho Low at the top of the market — who buys pictures over $20 million, $30 million, $40 million — it swings the market,” one of them said.
Asked if his family owned the painting, Mr. Low said he “did not purchase ‘Dustheads’ artwork on behalf of any investor.” Asked about his involvement in the art market, he replied, “The Low family is interested in fine art.”
Altantuya’s Brutal Murder: More Questions unanswered
by John R. Malottfirstname.lastname@example.org
COMMENT: Abdul Razak Baginda must think that we are all dumb. In an interview with The Malaysian Insider, he said that Altantuya Shaariibuu’s death was just a straightforward murder case, committed by rogue cops acting on their own.
“The truth to this murder is simply extremely too boring,” Razak said. “It was a straightforward murder, but there are still people convinced that (the) Police cannot do this without instructions. How many people die in (Police) remand?”
Many people in Malaysia are asking what motive Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar had for murdering Altantuya. Why would two elite Policemen, personal bodyguards to then Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, leave their official duty stations and go off to kill a woman who they had never met, using Police-issued weapons that could be traced back to them?
According to Razak, no one ordered them. They just did it. Razak compared it to death in remand, even though Altantuya was not under police arrest.
Are we supposed to believe that members of the Royal Malaysian Police, and especially members of the elite unit that protects the Prime Minister and other high-ranking officials, are cut-throat murderers, out-of-control cops who take it upon themselves to kill people?
Why would they kill an allegedly pregnant woman who was not robbing a bank, who was not a terrorist, and who was posing no danger to them? Are harassment and blackmail of the DPM’s friends punishable by summary execution?
What Sirul said
Let’s look at what Sirul had to say over eight years ago. When he confessed to the murder on November 19, 2006, he said that Azilah told him there would be a reward of between RM50,000 and RM100,000 “if the case was settled.”
Settling the case, according to Azilah’s instructions, meant to “shoot to kill” Altantuya and her two companions in the Malaya Hotel. Sirul did not say where the reward money was coming from. But if money is involved, it seems clear that this heinous crime is not about rogue cops.
In his court testimony, Sirul said Azilah told him that “there was work to be done.” He testified that Musa Safri, Najib’s Chief of Staff, had told Azilah about “a friend who had women problems.”
In short, Sirul’s account of the events goes like this. Musa told Azilah that “a friend” had a problem. Azilah then told Sirul that “there was work to be done,” and that the “work” was to “shoot to kill” Altantuya and her two companions. When the “case was settled,” there would be a reward of between RM50,000 and 100,000.
After he was found guilty in 2009, Sirul asked the court not to sentence him to death. In tears, he said that he was being sacrificed to protect unnamed people who were never brought to court or even faced questioning.
“I appeal to the court … not to sentence me (to death) so as to fulfill others’ plans for me.”
What did Azilah think?
Azilah’s lawyer at the time, Zulkifli Noordin (below), said that Azilah “felt that he had been betrayed,” and that as a member of the elite UTK security unit, “Azilah would not issue an order to his subordinate if he didn’t receive orders from the higher-ups.”
Zulkifli, who was then in the Opposition, abruptly quit as Defence Attorney because he said there were attempts to interfere with the defence he had proposed. The reason for the interference and pressure, he said, was “to protect a third party.”
Zulkifli also was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article. “My client is a senior-ranking officer in the special unit of the Police, and he has always acted on instructions – including in this case.”
Razak’s ‘selective memory’
Razak himself gave ammunition to what he calls the conspiracy theorists with his own statement to the police in 2006. He said that after he explained his predicament to Musa in October 2006, Musa then sent Azilah to see him, two days later.
In his affidavit, Razak said that Azilah said that he had “personally killed between six and 10 people,” and that he could easily “finish off the girl.” (I always found it curious that the Police never investigated and asked Azilah who the other six to 10 people were that he killed.)
Razak said that he was “shocked” at Azilah’s statements about murdering other people and his readiness to “finish off” Altantuya. He says he replied that he merely needed police protection.
Yet notwithstanding Razak’s admonition, Azilah and Sirul killed Altantuya the next day. Azilah then called Razak and said, “Tonight, sir, you can sleep well.”
It is hard to believe that a woman lost her life simply because she was harassing a man, a private citizen, and that members of an elite Police unit would take it upon themselves to kill her for that – on their own volition.
If all that Razak wanted was Police protection, then why didn’t Musa send an ordinary policeman, instead of taking two bodyguards away from the DPM’s personal protective detail? Or – why didn’t he send an immigration officer to arrest and deport Altantuya?
And if Razak had expressed concern about killing Altantuya and said that all he wanted was police protection, why did Azilah ignore Razak’s concerns and return the next day with Sirul, spirit Altantuya away, and then kill her and destroy her body?
Did she know too much?
But Altantuya was no ordinary woman, and her lover was no ordinary man. He was the agent for the purchase of the Scorpene submarines, a deal that is still under investigation by the French government for illegal payments. And she was with him throughout that time.
Part of the Scorpene money, €36 million (RM148 million) went to a phantom shell company in Hong Kong controlled by Razak. Altantuya traveled with her lover Razak to Paris as the negotiations were conducted. Razak’s friend was the Defence Minister then, and he was responsible for the purchase – and the purchase price – of the subs. The murderers were the Defence Minister’s personal bodyguards.
So, I’m sorry, Razak. This whole situation is neither boring nor straightforward. We would like to ask you:
How much did Altantuya know?
What did she learn about the Scorpene deal from her times together with you?
You said in your Malaysian Insider interview that your problem with Altantuya was purely a very private matter between the two of you and had nothing to do with the Scorpenes. But as the saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”Knowing Altantuya’s state of mind, do you think she was prepared to tell what she knew about the Scorpene deal if she didn’t get what she wanted from you? After all, she was blackmailing you.
Questions that Musa was never asked
Najib’s aide Musa was never called to testify, but there are a number of questions that we would like to ask him, too:
Razak told you about his problems with Altantuya on Oct 16, but it was two days later before you sent Azilah to see him. Did you talk to anyone about Razak’s problem during those two days? Who? What did you discuss?
Was anyone concerned that Altantuya, who seemed to be desperate, in a rage, and out of control at that time, might reveal what she knew about the Scorpene deal?
Why did you pick Azilah, who boasted of killing 6 to 10 people, to handle the problem? Why didn’t you send an ordinary street Police man, if all Razak wanted was police protection? Or why didn’t you send an immigration officer to pick her up and deport her back to Mongolia?
Why do you think that “killing the woman” was the solution that Azilah immediately proposed to Razak?
Precisely what instructions did you give to Azilah?
Why do you believe that Azilah and Sirul, two people under your direct command, committed this murder?
Questions for A-G’s Chambers
Given all this background, is it surprising that people still believe that the whole truth has yet to be revealed? The murderers have been convicted. But this case is not yet over. People want to know, who ordered the “hit” on Altantuya.
It is time for the Police to visit Musa, and see what he has to say. But perhaps they already did, eight years ago, during their investigation of the murder.
In his remarks to Malaysiakini on Sunday, Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Khalid Abu Bakar added to the intrigue. He said that it is standard procedure in murder investigations to cover all angles, including establishing the reasons behind the action and securing the necessary evidence for a prosecution.
Khalid said that information is “recorded in the Investigation Papers which are submitted to the Attorney-General’s Chambers for further action.” He stressed that it was not the Police’s role to question the prosecutor or courts for not delving into the motive during the hearing process.
The question therefore is whether the Police interrogated Musa and others in the DPM’s office eight years ago, and if they did, what information they passed on to the A-G’s Chambers. After all, Khalid said that it is standard procedure in murder investigations to “cover all angles.”
The prosecution, as we know, never called Musa as a witness, claiming that his testimony was not necessary. Yet the Court of Appeal unanimously concluded that Musa’s testimony indeed was essential to the narrative upon which the prosecution’s case was based.
The court ruled that “the failure of the prosecution to call or offer Musa for cross-examination… would have triggered adverse inference… against the prosecution.”
In this case, adverse inference means that a reasonable person could infer that the prosecution would have produced Musa if his testimony would have been supportive of their position that these two acted alone. But because they did not call him, it could mean that his testimony would not have supported their case.
The prosecution, it could be inferred, did not want Musa to be subject to cross-examination by Azilah’s and Sirul’s attorneys because his testimony might have undercut and been adverse to the prosecution’s case.
No matter what Razak says, this is not an open-and-shut case. There are too many unanswered questions.
*JOHN R MALOTT is former US ambassador to Malaysia. The research for this article owes a debt to the detailed and extensive reporting on the Altantuya and Scorpene cases for over nine years by Asia Sentinel.