Najib, 1MDB and billions of dollars: A look back at one of Malaysia’s biggest corruption scandals

KUALA LUMPUR: It is the day many Malaysians have been waiting for – when Najib Razak, once the country’s most powerful man, faces interrogation over his alleged role in a multi billion-dollar corruption scandal.

At 10am, the former prime minister is expected to arrive at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) headquarters to give a statement, as the probe into debt-ridden state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) gathers pace.

Najib Razak 1MDB curtain raiser 6

It is one of the biggest financial scandals in Malaysian history. According to the audit report on 1MDB, declassified last week by the Auditor-General, an estimated RM42.26 billion (US$10.6 billion) is required to settle its loans and interest between November 2015 and May 2039. 

The calculation was based on assumptions that 1MDB’s rationalisation plan would be implemented and no new loan was to be made after October 2015. 

To repay the loans, the report said 1MDB needs at least US$382 million every year between November 2015 and May 2024.

THE SCANDAL BREAKS

The 1MDB scandal captured global attention three years ago. 

In a major exposé, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Jul 2, 2015 that Malaysian investigators had traced nearly US$700 million of deposits into what they suspected were personal bank accounts belonging to Najib.

The then prime minister, who was also serving as finance minister, founded 1MDB shortly after securing his premiership in 2009. For seven years, he chaired its advisory board and had control over all its investment decisions.

In its July report, WSJ cited documents from a government investigation that allegedly identified the money trail to Najib’s accounts – through governmental agencies, banks and companies linked to 1MDB.

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“The original source of the money is unclear, and the government investigation doesn’t detail what happened to the money that went into Mr Najib’s personal accounts,” the newspaper said.

FRAUDULENT TRANSFERS

Financial irregularities surrounding 1MDB are believed to have begun in the same year the fund was created. 

In September 2009, the Malaysian state fund entered aUS$2.5 billion joint venture with a private Saudi oil company, PetroSaudi International (PSI). 

1MDB’s board of directors and Malaysia’s Central Bank then approved the transfer of US$1 billion – borrowed public money – to the joint venture. Its partner PSI also injected assets valued at US$1.5 billion.

However, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which is investigating the financial scandal, reported US$700 million of 1MDB’s US$1 billion transfer was diverted to a Swiss bank account named Good Star Limited by Jho Low – a close friend of Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz.

Between 2009 and 2011, the US investigation revealed that more than US$1 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB to Good Star Limited.

“The Good Star Account was beneficially owned not by PetroSaudi or the joint venture, but by Low Taek Jho, aka Jho Low, a Malaysian national who had no formal position with 1MDB but who was involved in its creation and exercised significant control over its dealings,” the department said.

In 2011, it added, about US$330 million in additional funds were wired to the Good Star account “purportedly in connection with a financing agreement” between 1MDB and the 1MDB-PetroSaudi joint venture.

1MDB PROBE REOPENED

Besides the huge amount of money involved, the 1MDB case has also captured public attention because it is being handled by a new government under Najib’s mentor-turned-rival, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. 

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Since taking power, he has not only reopened and speeded up the graft probe, but also made it clear that he will not strike a deal with Najib in exchange for the return of monies that were allegedly misappropriated.

On Monday, the new administration formed a special task force to investigate 1MDB-related matters. 

The body is expected to identify and seize assets allegedly acquired with misappropriated funds. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, it will also seek cooperation from various enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland and other countries involved. 

The task force is helmed by high-profile officials previously pressured or removed from power by Najib’s government during the original 1MDB probe in 2015-2016. 

They include: Former Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail, former Special Branch deputy director Abdul Hamid Bador, former MACC chief commissioner Abu Kassim Mohamed and current MACC chief commissioner Mohd Shukri Abdull.

The reopened investigation has progressed swiftly since Najib’s coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) was crushed in a historic general election on May 9. 

Najib Razak 1MDB curtain raiser 3

HANDBAGS, JEWELLERY, CASH 

Acting on Mahathir’s instructions, Malaysia’s immigration department moved to blacklist key profiles related to 1MDB from leaving the country. They include Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor, former 1MDB chief executive officers Ismee Ismail and Shahrol Halmi, and its current CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy, among others.

As the probe continues, police have raided properties linked to Najib and seized truckloads of items that might have been obtained with 1MDB funds. Confiscated objects include 284 boxes of designer handbags – some worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each – 72 bags stuffed with cash, jewellery and luxury watches. 

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In his speech to Pekan supporters on Sunday, Najib criticised the government’s handling of the investigation. He claimed his children’s wedding gifts and baby shoes had been seized without reason and mentioned a campaign of “slander and hatred” against him.

“What is the relation between 1MDB and children’s shoes? What is the relation between wedding gifts and 1MDB?” said the 64-year-old Pekan MP, who stepped down as BN chairman and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) president shortly after the coalition’s election defeat.

Najib Razak 1MDB curtain raiser 1

WHAT’S NEXT?

Tuesday is likely to be eventful. Besides recording Najib’s statement, the MACC is also due to hold a media briefing at 11am, where its newly appointed chief commissioner Mohd Shukri is expected to share “interesting stories”with journalists.

At 5pm, UMNO’s supreme council also plans to hold a press conference at its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

Nobody besides members of the MACC and Prime Minister Mahathir’s government know for sure what will happen to Najib when he turns up in Putrajaya. But it will not be long before the world finds out.