By Mary Ann Jolley
16 Nov 2020
Malaysia’s $4.5bn 1MDB scandal brought down the country’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, and in July saw him convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail, subject to an appeal, in the first of several trials over his role in looting the fund.
International investment bank Goldman Sachs, often regarded as untouchable, has also been brought to heel, charged with bribing corrupt foreign officials to win 1MDB business and forced to pay out billions of dollars to financial regulators around the world, including in Malaysia and the United States.
But authorities are yet to reel in perhaps the biggest fish, the man who potentially holds all the secrets to exactly how much money was stolen, who took it and who called the shots.
Dubbed the “Billion Dollar Whale” by Wall Street Journal authors, Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, the alleged mastermind of the 1MDB criminal scam is Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho. Wanted by Malaysia, the United States and Singapore, he has been on the run, out of sight and silent, for almost five years.
His only public presence is his official website, jho-low.com, where written statements protesting his innocence are posted by his lawyers.
But now in Al Jazeera’s special investigation, Jho Low: Hunt For A Fugitive, he can be heard for the first time, desperately trying to strike a deal with the Malaysian government to avoid going to jail.
Recordings of Jho Low featured in the programme, obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, are of a series of extraordinarily revealing phone conversations he had with the former Malaysian government, led by Mahathir Mohamad.
They took place in the weeks and months immediately after the Mahathir-led coalition’s landslide victory against Najib Razak in May 2018. In them, the fugitive betrays fellow conspirators, offers others, also on the run, as potential witnesses in 1MDB-related cases and complains about the mounting costs of legal representation. His sense of entitlement and lack of remorse are on full display.
“I don’t believe there’s any wrongdoing,” he says and then goes on to suggest he merely borrowed the billions from 1MDB to buy himself, among other things, luxury real estate around the world, art masterpieces, a private jet and a mega-yacht, not to mention millions of dollars worth of Christal champagne.
“All these ultimately were loans, directly or indirectly, but, ultimately, I think the time has come, we want to assist in repatriating these assets back in return for cooperating and moving on with life without, you know, being prosecuted,” he asserts.
‘Half a billion dollars’ worth of jewellery
Jho Low puts the blame for the 1MDB heist firmly on former Prime Minister Najib, who was also finance minister at the time billions were stolen from the sovereign wealth fund, claiming, “I have no authority to make any decision … It’s a pretty known fact that … all the approvals have to be approved by the minister of finance.”
He goes on to add support to the findings of the US Department of Justice that most of the more than $1bn that arrived in Najib Razak’s personal bank account was from 1MDB and not a gift from Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, as the former prime minister continues to claim.
“The reality is, it is true that King Abdullah actually agreed to give [a] donation to the PM but that was the small portion of a larger portion,” Jho Low says.
But perhaps the most stunning claim Jho Low makes about Najib is the amount of 1MDB money spent on jewellery for the former prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. The US Department of Justice documents in detail Jho Low’s purchase of a $27m pink diamond for Rosmah, but according to the fugitive, there was a lot more bought for her.
In fact, he says, “north of half a billion dollars” worth. “That was a huge amount,” he adds.