Criticism against Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak appears to be gaining steam outside of the country, with The Myanmar Times now jumping onto the bandwagon.
In its opinion page dated February 23, the writer Roger Mitton, presented a bleak picture on the issue, describing it as a “gluey black sea of venality the likes of which has not been seen in this region since the days of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.”
He said things are so bad that UMNO-owned newspaper, Utusan Malaysia, had to carry an editorial to try to exonerate Najib and shift the blame elsewhere.
“It failed, of course,” he said, adding it was because the newspaper was arguing against facts that indicate “Najib is steadily sinking into the treacly pit of corruption and maladministration.”
Mitton said the controversy surrounding debt-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, as reported by the New York Times, recently also were not helping in lifting his image for the better.
Best of Friends–Riza and Jho Low
“It is hard to truly comprehend the full magnitude of this gigantic, nepotistic malfeasance, and even the illustrious New York Times took three pages to try to do it,” he wrote. The Myanmar Times’ article also alleged that Riza, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor’s son, was responsible for most of the woes brought about by the 1MDB debacle, due to his association with Penang businessmen Jho Low.
“Why and how? There is no clear answer, except to recall that Najib is under the sway of Rosmah, a shopaholic wrecking ball, who shrugs off ridicule and ignores how her actions thwart her husband’s premiership,” he wrote.
Mitton went on to say that the personal damage to Najib “is piffling compared to the disastrous effect the huge 1MDB losses are having on the already fragile Malaysian economy.”
Adding on, the article said that political support for the ruling party in Malaysia was also diminishing, taking note the results in the last general elections that saw the voting pattern swaying towards opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
He said that since the failure to reverse the drop in votes experienced by his predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Najib has clung onto the UMNO leadership by appeasing his key support base, the Malays, “and marginalising the Chinese and Indian communities.”
Followed by the move to keep the Sedition Act and Anwar’s jailing, Mittton said “these actions signal a premier running scared.” He said that in any case, Najib’s survival may depend more on Umno elders the likes of former PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and former Finance Ministers Tun Daim Zainuddin and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
“Since they have all turned against him, though, the omens are not good.” he said.
The RM2.5 billion (US$700 million) which was listed as a loan repayment from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to Petrosaudi International (PSI) during 1MDB’s joint venture with Petrosaudi in 2009, was actually a “front” to channel the money to a company controlled by tycoon Jho Low (seen with Alicia Keys left), online news portal Sarawak Report alleged yesterday.
It claimed it had obtained confidential email exchanges and the whole joint venture agreement worth RM3.6 billion between 1MDB and Petrosaudi made in September 2009.
Last week, Sarawak Report revealed contents of the joint venture agreement which stated that 1MDB had to undertake to repay a RM2.5 billion loan that Petrosaudi had taken from its parent company, Petrosaudi International.
However, in its report yesterday, it exposed alleged email communications that revealed that Petrosaudi had agreed to act as a “front” for the money to be channeled to a foreign company allegedly controlled by Jho Low and his business associates.
The controversial Penang-born tycoon had been constantly linked to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (right) in the past, and was alleged in the report to have acted as though he represented the PM in communications with both PSI and 1MDB chiefs.
In fact, according to the report, Jho Low and his business associates were constantly copied in all email communications regarding negotiations pertaining to the joint venture.
PetroSaudi: Emails false
Sarawak Report said that in spite of official denials, the documents showed that the entire joint venture deal was “conceived, managed and driven” by Jho Low. The report also states that 1MDB bosses were kept out of the loop, and were only given an overview of PSI’s portfolio merely days before the massive joint venture agreement was penned in London.
Malaysiakini has contacted 1MDB and PetroSaudi for a response. In a statement to The Rakyat Post, PetroSaudi said the emails are false and that the news reports are “malicious”.
Sarawak Report’s full article can be accessed here. The report was in collaboration with London’s The Sunday Times.
The Sunday Times reported that a source close to Low dismissed claims that he was a secret broker as “without merit”, because he had said this year that he gave his views to 1MDB on various matters. He had not profited personally from the fund nor has he been employed or retained by 1MDB, the source said.
Similarly, the Malaysian government told the UK newspaper that Prime Minister Najib is not involved in 1MDB’s day-to-day operation.
“Views expressed by certain quarters concerning 1MDB should be examined in light of political motivation. However, if any wrongdoing is proven, the law will be enforced without exception.”
Low strikes back
Meanwhile in another development, Low has threatened to sue The Edge and its related news site The Malaysian Insider over articles on his involvement with 1MDB, the latter reported today.
According to the report, Low in a letter of demand dated February 26 pressed for the retraction of “false and defamatory assertions” in an article titled ‘Razak family concerned about inheritance talk, say siblings’ published in the news portal on February 24. Low’s lawyers also demanded the publications from writing articles of that sort in the future.
However, The Edge chief executive officer Ho Kay Tat in a note which accompanied the letter of demand published, said the group was standing by the stories written and will not cease publishing such articles.
“We would like to state here that The Edge Media Group stands by all the articles we have published about Mr Low and about 1MDB, and we will continue to publish news stories about Mr Low and about 1MDB as and when it is merited,” Ho was quoted saying.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been an international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years.
The announcement last week by top Malaysian banker Nazir Razak of his intention to file defamation charges against bloggers believed connected to a close friend of his brother, Prime Minister Najib Razak, has laid bare what has been whispered about for months in Kuala Lumpur.
The Razak Boys and Tun Rahah
There is a growing, acrimonious rift in the Razak family, much of it over the deeply indebted government-backed investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, and Najib’s siblings’ relationship with the Prime Minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, partly because of her ostentatious flaunting of enormous wealth.Rosmah, in addition to concerns about her behavior, is believed to have convinced her husband to initiate the 1MDB fund, which is backed by the Ministry of Finance.
One of the questions circulating in Malaysia’s business community is whether the family feud might result in problems for CIMB, the fast-growing Malaysia-headquartered bank that Nazir heads and which has become one of Southeast Asia’s leading financial institutions. Observers say CIMB owes at least some of its rapid growth to its connections to the family and hence to UMNO. “Its political connections are probably no longer a slam dunk asset for Nazir,” a business source with connections to the government told Asia Sentinel.
“The brothers openly criticize Rosmah at dinner functions and family events,” a well-wired source told Asia Sentinel.“I have heard them myself. Nazir’s family has moved to Oxford, where he spends 60 to 70 percent of his time. His elder brother Nizam spends time with his family in Boston. The two elder brothers Johari and Nazim also cannot get along with Rosmah.”
The Powerful Rosmah Mansor
It was Nazim, according to two sworn declarations, one by a business associate of Rosmah and the other by the late private detective Perumal Balasubramaniam, who played a role in forcing Bala, as he was known, out of the country in 2008 after he issued an initial statement that Najib himself had been the lover of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman murdered in 2006 in one of Malaysia’s most notorious killings and who was peripherally involved in a massive bribery case involving the sale of French submarines to Malaysia.After Bala made the statement, he was told to get out of Malaysia and was given a hefty bribe to do so. Allegedly it was Nazim, a Kuala Lumpur architect, who took Balasubramaniam to the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur to write a statement recanting his version of the relationship between Altantuya and Najib.
The acrimony is so bad that some of the family have spent their Hari Raya holiday – the celebration at the end of the fasting month – in Phuket and Singapore to avoid going to the Prime Minister’s obligatory open house, the source said.
The squabble has broken into the open at a time when Najib is under attack from a wide variety of sources including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who pushed out Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in 2009 to replace him with Najib.
1MDB and the Penang-born tycoon whose brainchild it was – and his connection to the Najib family – were the subject of a long and criticalNew York Times articleon February 8.The article has sinceserved as red meat to the Mahathir forces and Muhyiddin Yassin, the Deputy Prime Minister who is said to be eyeing Najib’s job.
Hints of the rift began in January 2014 ,when Nazir wrote a long article in Kinibiz, the business edition of the widely read independent online publication Malaysiakini, which is highly critical of the government.
In the article, Nazir wrote a remembrance of his father, Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, titled “Remembering My Father, Tun Razak.” Among other things the father was said in the article to have refused to use public funds to build a swimming pool for his children at the government-owned Prime Minister’s residence. He personally paid his family’s expenses on government trips, Nazir said, and was committed to national unity between the three major ethnic groups, the Malays, Chinese and Indians.
The article stood as an obvious public rebuke to the Prime Minister, who has been accused of remodeling the Prime Minister’s residence (Seri Perdana in Putrajaya) at vast public expense at the urging of his wife, using the government’s public jet for private junkets and refusing to rein in Malay superiority NGOs such as PERKASA and ISMA, whose strident rhetoric has led to a poisonous racial situation.
“Nazir has long worried about the negative influence of Rosmah, in particular, on Najib and has complained to friends and associates about it,” said a longtime western political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “Of course, Rosmah knows this and despises Nazir in return and badmouths him to Najib. So it goes.”
In another article, printed last week in Kinibiz, Nazir said that after the first article appeared anonymous attacks began on his family and his children from bloggers believed to be connected to Taek Jho Low, the flamboyant young Penang-born financier who has parlayed his UK school connections into what appears to be a vast fortune – and embroiled Najib in government debt generated by1MDB, the subject of an extensive Asia Sentinel report on Dec. 8, 2014.
Jho Low, as he is known, became a friend of Rosmah’s son Riza Aziz during his school days in the UK at Harrow, while Riza was at nearby Haileybury.After first vainly approaching the Sultan of Terengganu to use the state’s oil revenues to start a sovereign investment fund, Jho Low turned to Najib, then the defense minister. On Jho Low’s advice, 1MDB appears to have invested vast amounts in a series of misguided adventures.
In Kinibiz last week, Nazir said the attacks, constituting “lies and slander,” cross the line. His statement follows a series of comments by businessman and publisher Tong Kooi Ong, who had also been subjected to anonymous blog attacks that Tong claimed were due to The Edge Malaysia newspaper’s extensive and biting coverage of 1MDB.
The Edge Malaysia is part of The Edge Media Group, which Tong owns. On Feb. 6, Tong said he had ascertained the identity of the blogger going by the name ‘ahrily90’ and had served a legal letter to Jho Low, who has previously denied any links to the attacks.
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.”
COMMENT: Most of those who have attacked Dato Tong may not understand what short selling, be it currency or share, is about. In simple terms, it is the sale of a currency or security that is not owned by the seller, or that the seller has borrowed.
Short selling is motivated by the belief that the exchange rate of a currency, say the ringgit, or price of a security will decline, enabling it to be bought back at a lower price to make a profit.
Short selling may be prompted by speculation, or by the desire to hedge the downside risk of a long position in the same security or a related one. Since the risk of loss on a short sale is theoretically infinite, short selling should only be used by experienced traders who are familiar with its risks (adapted from http://www.investopedia.com)
Is Dato Tong is currency speculator? I know he is not. He is a well-known security analyst and an entrepreneur with a Midas touch. He is also an astute investor and a builder of businesses. I knew him from my days in Cambodia in the 1990s. I met him when he visited Phnom Penh with some of my friends to identify business opportunities. He then owned a bank, and was a property developer and an equity analyst with a solid reputation. A currency speculator has a different mindset.
His attackers have chosen the wrong guy to heap the blame for the recent dismal performance of the ringgit. It is time we look seriously into our economic and fiscal and monetary policies before we find scapegoats for our policy failures. It is sad to note that our leaders are not prepared to deal with reality. Surely, we can manage our affairs better.
While it is true that the strength of the US dollar “may be due in part to the strengthening of the US economy and the expectations of an interest rate hike, following the end of the US quantitative easing since October 2014″, I add that the lack of investor confidence in our economy for 2015 and our worrying political climate are influencing sentiments on our stock market and undermining the ringgit.–Din Merican.
Businessman Dato’ Tong Kooi Ong (pic below) has denied allegations that he is shorting the Ringgit, saying recent blog postings claiming he has taken a short position against the national currency are “malicious lies”.
The Businessman with a Midas Touch
In a statement today, Tong said he had never shorted any currency or equity, being a value investor, and stated that he does not feel crashing the Ringgit is possible.
“I do not believe it is even remotely possible to break Bank Negara or crash the Ringgit. The foreign exchange reserves of the country are in excess of USD110 billion,” said Tong, whose businesses include the Edge Group, today. “The current account of the country is in surplus. Non-Ringgit borrowings are very low. I have gone on record with the above statement, both in my speeches and in the articles I wrote. Again, this is a matter of record.”
The blog postings were carried on malaysianexpose.wordpress.com and kronismemahathir.wordpress.com and timestamped January 29 and 28 respectively, though no author was named.
On Friday, January 30, Bernama quoted Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as saying that should allegations of individuals attempting to capitalise on the current pressure on Ringgit to sabotage the economy be true, relevant government agencies should gather evidence and take action.
The following day Bernama quoted Deputy Finance Minister Ahmad Maslan as urging Bank Negara Malaysia, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and other relevant agencies to investigate claims that individuals are speculating on the Ringgit for personal gain.
“I hope MCMC and BNM will investigate the matter and if there is any truth in the allegation, the perpetrators must be brought to justice,” Ahmad was quoted as telling reporters yesterday.
Tong’s statement is reproduced in full below:
I refer to the malicious lies and fabrications against me in the blogs I refer to the malicious lies and fabrications against me in the blogs malaysianexpose.wordpress.com (29 January 2015) and kronismemahathir.wordpress.com (28 January 2015).
I vehemently and absolutely deny the accusations. I did not at any time short the Malaysian Ringgit.
I am an equity analyst, besides being an established entrepreneur. I am a value investor. I have never shorted currencies or equities. I acquire and build companies, create value for shareholders and create employment through ideas and innovation. My track record speaks for itself.
I am certain Bank Negara Malaysia will be aware if there is such a heinous crime. Bank Negara has not contacted me and I pledge to cooperate fully with Bank Negara if my assistance is needed at any time.
As a Malaysian, I too am against economic saboteurs. I support the Prime Minister’s call that those who sabotage the country’s economy must be brought to justice.
Personally, I do not believe it is even remotely possible to break Bank Negara or crash the Ringgit. The foreign exchange reserves of the country are in excess of USD110 billion. The current account of the country is in surplus. Non-Ringgit borrowings are very low. I have gone on record with the above statement, both in my speeches and in the articles I wrote. Again, this is a matter of record.
The facts are that almost every currency in the world is currently falling against the USD (United States Dollars). This is due in part to the strengthening of the US economy and the expectations of an interest rate hike, following the end of the US quantitative easing since October 2014. Further, many countries in the region as well as Europe are depreciating their currencies and lowering their interest rates to promote growth.
I am currently unable to ascertain the individual(s) who is (are) responsible for the malicious lies against me, and what their intentions are. I will pursue legal course of action once I am able to identify those responsible. Making up such lies is beneath human decency.