Malaysia: a case study in global corruption

Clare Rewcastle Brown

This is a case study of how persistent and long-term investigative journalism, using new media, can expose the corrupt in political power and also how the very rich have harnessed the same tools to retaliate through online intimidation and disinformation.

I became involved in the Malaysian corruption issue back in late 2006 when I returned to Sarawak, East Malaysia (the place of my birth), to take part in a Media and Environment conference. Malaysia is a Southeast Asian nation of two halves, cobbled together in 1963 by the British when they relinquished control of previously separate colonies. To the west is the more developed mainland, which includes the capital, Kuala Lumpur; across the South China Sea, East Malaysia comprises the two states in the northern part of the island of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak, made up of several polities previously in the British Empire. Once known for rubber plantations, pepper and spice trade but nonetheless retaining a largely intact forest landscape, this beautiful region was soon to fall prey to mass timber extraction, followed by the rolling out of an imported cash crop monoculture. The blight of palm oil is today well understood, and Malaysia has become the epicentre of the business that is now driving the mass obliteration of natural forests through Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, the Congo and beyond. The discovery of oil, coal and other valuable resources has consolidated the power of political office holders.

In Borneo, considered the richest area of biodiversity on the planet, the effects have been devastating. Meeting up with local journalists and scientists, I rapidly concluded that poor governance was responsible, driven by statelevel, political corruption, abetted by the federal Malaysian government. The local ruling family of then-Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (now governor) had been in power since the 70s and had taken the opportunity to appropriate all the profit for themselves and a handful of political cronies working hand in glove with the ‘big six’ timber conglomerates, an inter-related web of family concerns based in the Chinese seaboard communities in the towns of Sibu and Miri.

The local indigenous populations were being stripped of their native customary land rights and bullied and beaten out of the areas they depended on for their food and livelihoods. The landgrabs were carried out in the name of development that did not arrive. With thousands of square miles of prime timber extracted at virtually no profit to the state revenues (officially, the wood was exported for nominal prices), it was whispered that Taib Mahmud was a billionaire several times over.

Why was the federal government allowing such abuses? Why was none of this being reported locally or internationally? And why were the Mahmud family and their cronies apparently able to siphon out so much wealth from their country through the international banking system into what I swiftly identified as a series of massive property portfolios across the Americas |1], United Kingdom [2] and Australia [3]?

Having retained a grip on government since independence, the ruling Barisan Nasional Party utilised a raft of oppressive measures to silence critics, including sedition laws (left over from colonial times) and tight media licensing controls.

The federal government was allowing local potentates such as Taib Mahmud of Sarawak and his alter ego in the neighbouring state of Sabah, Musa Aman, a free hand to pillage their states in return for an illegal deal signed off on in 1974 (the Petroleum Development Act was never ratified by the state parliament as legally required), whereby the federal government obtained 95% of the fabulous oil wealth of both those states. Thus unchecked, Taib set about awarding his family and cronies vast concessions and contracts: his children soon emerged as the shareholders of the biggest companies in the state, enriched by assets privatised from public ownership. They worked together with a handful of increasingly powerful businesses, Sarawak’s ‘big six’ timber companies, which diversified into plantations, oil and gas, construction and of course media ownership. All the major private news outlets, such as the Borneo Post, were owned by the logging interests connected to Taib, which have now spread their interests throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. In the speech made in 2016 by then Deputy Head of the FBI, Andrew McCabe he confirms the corruption I identified and that spurred the Department ofjustice to the biggest ever seizure of assets in the United States [4].

To enforce such unscrupulous theft by the political classes in a nominal democracy where most people were seeing their ancient rights and livelihoods removed without compensation necessitated strongarm tactics [5]. I was banned from the state almost as soon as I started reporting on Sarawak’s problems [6]. No local journalist dared to report on the true state of corruption in the state, let alone the brutal treatment of the indigenous people who were losing their lands or the disastrous environmental impacts of Taib’s policies. As they explained to me, at best, they would lose their jobs and see their families penalised in various ways, and at worst, they could be hauled up for ‘spreading false news’ or ‘activities detrimental to democracy’ (both of which I, in the relative safety of the United Kingdom, would later be charged with from afar), punishable by up to 20 years in jail. The courts were subject to much political influence, leaving the Malaysian media to all intents a state propaganda machine operating one of the most controlled media environments in the world, languishing around the bottom quarter of the 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index compiled by the organisation Reporters Without Borders [7].

Researching the money flows, it was clear that what enabled the whole system of exploitation to work so smoothly for the dominant political and business families in East Malaysia was the manner in which western professionals and the global financial system were willing to assist these local kleptocrats in processing their corruptly gotten gains out of the locality where they were blatantly abusing their positions of trust, through the off-shore system and into tax free investments across the developed economies. Thanks to these rogue jurisdictions and the willing participation of sophisticated foreign helpers, including bankers, lawyers, tax advisors, business consultants, media and policy strategists, these political criminals had got away with thieving the wealth of their nation from under the feet of its people. Each time a journalist like myself attempted to trace disappearing assets, we would hit the world of‘Treasure Islands’ secrecy, making it virtually impossible to untangle ownerships without the help of official investigations or whistleblowers to crack open the money trails [8].

The consequences in terms of environmental devastation and human misery are global, affecting the well-being of billions of lives. In Sarawak, great rivers that were once teeming with life are now stained red and clogged with mud and toxic chemicals. Nearly all the larger animals, including the orang-utan, clouded leopard, proboscis monkey, sun bears, dwarf rhinoceros and pygmy elephants, have become critically endangered, and thousands of plant and animal species have doubtless hit extinction even before being discovered by science.

Marine nurseries for billions of fish have been wiped out with the loss of mangroves and coral reefs. The loss of the natural habitat has been a catastrophe for the native peoples of the region - dozens of tribes and languages existed in the state of Sarawak alone. Bulldozed out of their native lands, many of these groups are being left on the edge of starvation on the fringes of massive plantations without compensation, basic services or any of the benefits of the vast wealth released from their lands. As I started to report on the situation in the interior for such communities, it became clear that none of the profit from logging or palm oil was being returned into health, education, infrastructure or even basic provisions for people who had been deprived of their jungle living. Most still do not have running water, electricity or roads, and very many have been deliberately kept undocumented, which has obstructed them from being able to make demands or vote for a better outcome. Later reporting trips have shown this pattern is repeated everywhere across the region, such as in the vast timber island of Papua New Guinea [9] and the Solomon Islands [10], which are being stripped bare by the very same Sarawak companies who exported their tactics of buying decision-makers and promising development that never came.

Annual choking fires set by the agri-businesses to clear the scrub from logged land to create oil palm plantations now regularly turn these key natural environments into pollution hotspots, affecting the health of the populations in the entire region who suffer the smog for weeks on end - and are a leading driver of climate change.

How new media took on a totalitarian state

In 2009, the internet presented a staggering window of opportunity, offering small news portals the chance to compete with major news groups - free from censorship and potentially able to catch the attention of a population that was greedily plugging into new possibilities to learn about previously forbidden information. Deep-seated dissatisfaction with the very same corruption and environmental and human rights issues that troubled me was already starting to be expressed online. As an experienced western journalist used to challenging powerful interests as well as digging up information and confirming facts, I felt I could add to the effectiveness of what was being written so far. Facts that nailed the allegations, evidence that corroborated the arguments, clear exposés and a strong narrative were the tools of my trade as I set about providing what I hoped would offer at least a small sampling of public interest journalism to a community that had for decades been fed nothing but wall-to-wall pro-government propaganda through its media. Apart from a /^1,000 grant to create the site, I launched it without backers and on my own without any commercial elements.

It was named Sarawak Report in deference to the subject matter and target audience, who were the general public of the East Malaysian state. Yet by calling out the unexplained wealth and blatant conflicts of interest of the ruling family, I started to see immediate impacts in terms of thousands of hits from further afield in Malaysia, too. Articles were being shared and made viral through the developing new media networks of Facebook and Twitter. They were reaching the local audiences in Malaysia without any assistance needed from the previous dominant cartels of mainstream news. And because I was remotely based in the far freer media environment of the United Kingdom, I presented my Malaysian targets with a novel challenge in that, although I was soon banned from the state, they could not silence me.

As I pointed to the international assets of the Taibs and their associates and questioned how a salaried government official together with his immediate family could have amassed such wealth |11], I soon began to receive anonymous insider leaks and tip-offs, another revolutionary by-product of the new media pathways.

These leaks led me to further story after story, as I started to chase the companies belonging to the leading family, which since the early 80s had spread its tentacles into wealth and properties across the globe. The journey of discovery continued as the world of online data started to open up, giving access to public records across the world. Moreover, data that had been suppressed could be sneaked out of back offices and emailed — for example, I received the land survey data detailing the secret handouts of native lands appropriated by the government. I learnt to which front companies they had been granted, whose shareholders I could then research online and who invariably turned out to be connected to Taib through family, political or business ties.

Questioning contacts and NGOs, I tracked down a whistleblower in California who had managed a multi-million-dollar property' portfolio for Taib [12|. More leads in the United Kingdom revealed major London holdings [13|; likewise in Australia. By the time of the state election of 2011, Sarawak’s chief minister—cum—finance minister—cum—planning resources minister, who had for so long seemed all powerful and untouchable, had an angry populace on his hands.

The result saw his party’s share of the popular vote down to a mere 51% of the electorate, despite notorious election rigging practices and gerrymandering by' the ruling parties [14]. He had been particularly hit in the urban areas, where young and old were now online.

Moving up

Following on the heels of that debacle, the 2013 general election likewise presented the closest shave ever for the ruling party'. It lost the popular vote for the first time, retaining power thanks only' to gerrymandering 115] and vote buying [16].

To survive an unprecedented challenge by a newly invigorated opposition led by' Anwar Ibrahim, running on an anti-corruption manifesto, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, pumped hundreds of millions into winning the election, taking Malaysia’s infamous ‘money politics’ to a new level [17]. It was treated as common knowledge by insiders who spoke to me that the source of the cash appeared to be a new ‘sovereign wealth fund’ set up by' Najib named One Malaysia Development (IMDB) that he was using as a personal slush fund rather than for its ostensible purpose of investing in development 118].

Notwithstanding the close election result and the discontent with corruption it expressed, the federal government did not confront Taib and his brutal regime. Najib’s attitude to the East Malaysian states was a long-standing one in his party - they were Barisan Nasional’s so-called ‘safe deposit’: a vital source of cooperative MPs and oil revenues [19]. A Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission investigation had been opened on Taib Mahmud in response to the public outcry over the Sarawak Report’s exposes into his assets and sweetheart contracts and concessions. Now it was closed. Najib had merely taken the opportunity to leverage more control over the totalitarian state leader by' using the investigation to bargain him out of his executive roles into the ceremonial governor’s office. However, thanks to his vast wealth, the elderly' politician still holds a commanding control over the economy and management of the state.

The disappointing shutting down of all investigations against Taib and his cronies, despite the overwhelming evidence of their blatant corruption, underlined the extent to which Taib and his ilk were being protected by their partners in crime at the federal level. I realised that without change at the very top of Malaysian politics, they would remain entrenched and their destruction of the last tracts of forest would continue unchecked. I therefore started to expand my investigations, insofar as I could, towards West Malaysia and central government.

My opening to look into Najib and his IMDB fund came at the end of 2013. Christmas had seen the release of the hundred-million-dollar Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street. The producer bankrolling it was a newcomer to the movie business named Riza Aziz, Najibs stepson, born to his second wife Rosmah. Rosmah was by then a widely hated character in Malaysia, known for her gargantuan spending sprees, her greed and her interfering presence in her husband’s government. Malaysians were widely speculating how the couple had acquired so much money (displayed, for example, at her daughters lavish wedding [20]) from his career in politics, and now I wondered how her son had managed to fund a blockbuster film, given his previous career as a junior bank officer lasting just two years.

I browsed reports on the film online and noticed that present in all the photo shoots was a young Chinese Malaysian financier named Jho Low, who had already attracted headlines thanks to his big spending in global hotspots. Jho had been in his 20s when he started to gain notoriety in the nightclubs of New York [21], Las Vegas, London and St Tropez, whilst at the same time having coincidentally emerged as the key advisor to Prime Minister Najib over the IMDB fund and a rumoured confidant of his wife Rosmah. Now it was clear Jho was also involved in Riza s film.

This all raised questions [22]. Jho Low had never provided a consistent explanation for his access to so much cash, at first claiming he was investing on behalf of parents of rich school friends (he went first to Harrow and then Wharton College in Pennsylvania), then later asserting that he was a third-generation billionaire, which came as a surprise to his former neighbours in Penang [23]. It was The Wolf of Wall Street leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio who publicly put the pair in the spotlight; when receiving a Golden Globe Award for the film in January, he thanked Jho and Riza for taking a risk on the movie’ [24|. I had already arrived in Hollywood by that time, since the questions I had raised in articles on Sarawak Report had prompted tip-offs about a series of massive Beverly Hills properties Riza and Jho had secretly bought - again with unexplained millions of dollars through anonymous companies based in Delaware, the United States’ secretive domestic tax haven [25]. I would later dig up plenty more on Riza’s business activities, all covert and mysteriously funded [26].

Riza and his company, Red Granite Pictures, employed some of the most expensive lawyers in the United States, who immediately started bombarding me with aggressive threats about my reporting. This form of pushback is highly effective against most mainstream news organisations with businesses to protect and a wide range of issues to cover. However, with truth and public interest on my side and with just one issue in my sights, I called their bluff, on the basis that the people I was investigating would be disinclined to appear in a witness box in a court of law. I also released their ‘confidential’ legal letters to the Hollywood media [271. Predictably, the lawyers never pursued their threats.

Pushback

Nonetheless, unscrupulous operators (in many cases former journalists who had identified a new form of PR known as ‘reputation management’) had started pitching to wealthy individuals and oppressive governments, claiming they could outsmart the social media challenge and take back control of the media landscape. Najib Razak had spent millions on online campaigns to vilify his opponent, Anwar Ibrahim [28]. Taib Mahmud purchased the assistance of firms such as the UK-based production company FBC Media [29], Bell Pot-tinger [30] and SCL [31] (the parent company of Cambridge Analytica) to attack and discredit me online and promote his election chances [32]. FBC Media was working with Rogue Strategic Communications, run by close associates of the (now-jailed) Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort [33].

FBC and Josh Trevino of Rogue Strategic Communications were originally hired to target Sarawak Report in 2011 by Taib Mahmud on a three-year contract worth SI 5 million [34]. It was an early manifestation of the very real industry of‘fake news’.

I found myself the target of a burgeoning crop of online sites dedicated to attacking and defaming me in a concerted effort to discredit my reporting. Fake Facebook and Twitter identities were created in order to spread their stories [35].

In 2014, soon after my exposés about the Beverly Hill properties, I established that Jho Low had lied over a statement issued through a top PR company that he had ceased involvement in IMDB shortly after the fund’s May 2009 launch. A UK High Court judgement recorded that he had been financially backed by IMDB in an attempted billion-dollar buy-out in 2011 of London’s most luxurious hotel chain |36], Meanwhile, tracking Jho Low and the Najib family through social media, Sarawak Report had started to unveil details of an astonishing trail of debauchery and excess surrounding these characters and a circle of willing Hollywood hangers-on (including Paris Hilton and DiCaprio) as they partied and gambled in Las Vegas and the world’s hotspots. Alongside his Hollywood homes, Jho had acquired a super-yacht for $250 million, a private jet and iconic New York properties, while Rosmah had become a notorious collector of hundred-thousand-dollar Birkin handbags (274 were discovered still boxed when her properties were eventually raided), as well as hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds and haute couture.

This was all eye-catching material and was laying bare the connection between a kleptocracy, which was destroying the world’s third largest rainforest, leaving its people marginalised and destitute, and mammoth expenditure and investments in high-profile sectors of the world’s advanced economies.

Whistleblowers

Despite the current fixation with ‘data journalism’, nothing beats a good human source. I obtained my first key insider on IMDB in Xavier Justo, a Swiss former director of the first company that engaged in a so-called joint venture’with IMDB, PetroSaudi International [37]. His (initially anonymous) contact details were passed to me by an aide to an opposition politician whom Justo had approached through an intermediary, offering to sell information that would ‘destroy Najib’.

That politician was Anwar Ibrahim, whom Najib was seeking to return to jail (on spurious charges of sodomy, for which he had been previously jailed under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) in order to cripple the growing opposition threat before the next election, due in 2018. However, Anwar’s people were very sceptical about the approach; anyway, they didn’t have the $2 million being asked for the promised information. I, of course, didn’t have any funds to pay for it either, but I knew enough about the deal to suspect from the tantalising snippets Justo had relayed to the politicians that the documents he was offering were probably genuine. PetroSaudi, owned by a Saudi prince, Turki, and a Swiss-based friend named Tarek Obaid, was essentially a shell company looking to peddle access through Prince Turki’s royal connections, but it had posed as a major player in the oil business.

I went to Bangkok to meet Justo (who now lived in Thailand) and try to find out more. I learnt that, having fallen out with his former colleagues, he had left, taking with him a copy of the company email server - the database contained hundreds of thousands of documents which revealed how the joint venture with IMDB had fronted an immense and deliberate theft from the fund. We scrolled through some of the damning material that plainly showed how Jho Low, representing IMDB on behalf of the ‘Big Boss’ (Najib) and his wife Kosmah, was acting behind the scenes as the real orchestrator of the development fund. The plan had been pulled together at a meeting of the key players -Turki, Obaid, Najib, Kosmah and Jho — on board a super-yacht off the coast of Monaco shortly after Najib had taken power in 2009. They had even emailed each other the pictures, providing handy visual evidence. As the plan unfurled, the official board and management of IMDB were no more than window dressing; such was the power of the prime minister-cum-finance minister over Malaysia’s highly centralised and corrupt regime.

Bank transfers showed that of SI.83 billion transferred by IMDB into the joint venture, over $1.3 billion had been siphoned into an off-shore company based in the Seychelles that was owned by Jho Low, whilst the rest went into funding PetroSaudi’s private ventures and kickbacks. Jho Low had used $260 million to buy out, at vast profit, one of his own investments in Sarawak, a conglomerate named UBG half owned by Taib Mahmud himself, who thus also profited handsomely from this theft of Malaysian public money.

Big banks, accountancy giants, global law firms and the United Nations

Intermediaries on this first set of deals were RBS Coutts in Zurich, J P Morgan Suisse and BSI Bank. Dozens of international banks were eventually caught facilitating the transfers and thefts from IMDB ‘without due care and attention’. BSI Bank has been closed down over the fraud [38] and several others fined [39] and prosecuted [40]. The top London law firm White & Case managed PetroSaudis side of the deal, whereby S700 million was transferred out of the joint venture company on the ver}-' first day of operations in the guise of a bogus loan repayment. Many other law firms, including Shearman & Sterling and Kobre & Kim, were later caught up in the scandal (millions were laundered through their client accounts to fund Kiza’s movies) [41], along with three of the world’s top four accountancy firms who failed to do basic due diligence on IMDB’s audits [42] and waved through Jho Low’s fraudulent transactions on behalf of prime minister Najib. Politicians and officials in Western countries and global institutions were likewise beneficiaries of the IMDB conspirators’ efforts to buy influence and cover up their criminality on the international stage. By the time I got the story, Jho had reinvented himself as a global philanthropist feted by the UN Foundation for funding its Global News service, ironically dedicated to supporting investigative journalism [43]!

The Malaysian scandal has become a case study in how global financial institutions, law firms and other governments have flocked to do business with corrupt authoritarian regimes, providing kleptocrats with impunity not just in their own countries but across the world. Foremost amongst these was the banking giant Goldman Sachs, central to the next set of blatantly corrupt manoeuvres orchestrated by Jho Low on behalf of his ‘Big Boss’ through IMDB [44]. This constituted the borrowing by IMDB, ostensibly for investment in power plants and urban development, of $6.5 billion via three major bond issues managed by the bank. As I wrote at the time, the extortionate interest rates offered — which I discovered from a leaked document related to this secretive deal — and suspiciously high fees exacted by the bank ought to have triggered regulatory alarms but never did [45a]. The FBI later traced how half of the cash raised was again siphoned off' within hours into off-shore companies connected to Jho Low and his co-conspirators [45b],

After several months trying to get Justo to part with the evidence, I finally persuaded a Malaysian media baron to pay his price and received a copy of the data as part of that agreement. Together with the Sunday Times, I published the expose on PetroSaudi in February 2015, calling it ‘The Heist of the Century’ [46] (which indeed it was, as 1MDB is now recognised as the largest theft tackled by the US Department of Justice, totalling $5 billion and rising as investigations around the world continue). Thereafter I was contacted by several more insiders, including one with key information about those Goldman Sachs bond deals, which had been conducted in collaboration with a second IMDB joint venture partner’, a company called Aabar which was itself a subsidiary company of another sovereign wealth fund, Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC).

My source had been close to the sovereign wealth fund manager and chief executive of IPIC, Khadem Al Qubaisi, popularly known as KAQ, who was also chairman of Aabar. Jho Low and KAQ had already been revealed to me by a separate source to be party companions in Las Vegas, where the salaried fund manager had mysteriously funded a major nightclub chain named Hak-kasan [47]. Working with Jho Low, KAQ had agreed, in a complex arrangement constructed by Goldman Sachs’ South East Asia boss, Tim Leissner (who has now pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud [48]), that Aabar would act as the ‘guarantor’ for the bonds raised by IMDB. In return for the guarantee on the loans, IMDB secretly agreed to pay around half of the money raised to companies allegedly owned by Aabar.

What my new informant was able to demonstrate through documents obtained from KAQ’s account at Edmond de Rothschild bank in Luxembourg was that the companies into which around S3 billion was paid (ostensibly for the nonsensical loan guarantee) were merely bogus off-shore entities based in the British Virgin Islands and Seychelles, owned not by Aabar but by KAQ. Haifa billion dollars from those payments had gone straight into KAQ’s private accounts to pay for his lavish lifestyle (he owned a fleet of more than 50 customised sports vehicles and over a dozen properties in Paris and the Cote D’Azure) [49] and also for the upkeep of one of the world’s largest superyachts, Topaz, which belongs to KAQ’s ultimate boss at IPIC, Sheikh Mansour, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. After I published the story in March 2015, KAQ was sacked and soon imprisoned, the first arrest related to IMDB [50].

Compliance officers within Goldman Sachs had consistently raised concerns about these extraordinary arrangements but were over-ruled, and I wrote numerous reports demanding accountability, which for years the bank stonewalled while Najib remained in power. Following investigations in the United States and other jurisdictions, the bank has now paid more than $7 billion in fines and compensation for its role in the affair, and some of its star bankers have been struck off and arrested [51]. The new Malaysian government pressed charges against 17 senior executives at the bank (later settled in return for an alleged $3.9 billion), and a major shareholder class action has accused the former CEO and president and others of complicity and cover-up in the illegal transactions that made unprecedented profits for the bank. It is worth noting that until a tiny online blog, Sarawak Report, published these exposes, there had seemed little chance that any regulatory or investigative body would take action to investigate what had by 2015 emerged as billion-dollar losses from a government fund through the good offices of Goldman Sachs.

Power vs publicity

My stories on the initial IMDB joint venture with PetroSaudi were picked up by the wider media and prompted investigations by anti-corruption authorities in Malaysia. Initially these were permitted by Najib, who sought to distance himself as a mere advisor to the fund. Amendments to the articles of association later proved he had in fact established himself as the sole shareholder and decision-maker [52]. The FBI also began its own enquiries based on the dollar transactions involved and the huge assets caught up in the United States.

In late June 2015, my own sources within the Malaysian investigations passed me crucial confirmation that nearly a billion dollars from the money funnelled out of IMDB through the fake Aabar accounts had been transferred to Najibs own personal bank account in KL just a week before he called that 2013 general election which had witnessed so much vote buying. I was passed documents showing the transfer of $681 million into his account from a company in Singapore owned by Jho Low. After weeks of denial, during which time Xavier Justo had been arrested and jailed in Bangkok on trumped-up charges of blackmail (and forced to make a false confession in which he accused me of doctoring the documents [53]), this was the game changer.

I passed on the documentation to the Wall Street Journal, and we jointly published the evidence on 2 July [54|. Najib was on the run, and many of the entities that had been hired to intimidate and impede my reporting, including a team of private investigators who had ostentatiously stalked me in London over several weeks and reported my movements back to their bosses in Malaysia, now noticeably fell away [551. Instead, Najib moved to secure his position at home. He aggressively clamped down on dissent, bringing in new regulations against online media and one of the world’s first ‘fake news’ laws to intimidate social media users. My site was banned entirely, the first such case in Malaysia (happily, many savvy internet users were able to get around the ban) [56]. Then he shut down the domestic investigations of IMDB and sacked the attorney general and several senior politicians who had led calls for more accountability over IMDB [571. He replaced the top personnel in the anti-corruption agencies, and his new attorney general was wheeled out to make a press statement claiming the enquiries had shown there was ‘no wrongdoing at IMDB’ and that Najib was ‘cleared’ [58]. The billion dollars in Najib’s account was explained as a gift from an anonymous Middle Eastern royal who appreciated Najib’s contributions to the promotion of moderate Islam.

I was leaked a charge sheet which showed that prosecutors had drawn up charges against Najib for criminal breach of trust and theft and had been on the verge of charging him. It was obvious that this had precipitated his sudden virtual coup against his own government. I published the document, which caused a huge stir.

Najibs regime responded by bringing charges against me for ‘spreading false news’ and ‘activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy’, for which the penalties amounted to 20 years imprisonment on each charge [59]. Malaysia requested INTERPOL issue a Red Notice seeking my arrest and extradition to face the charges (thankfully it was publicly rejected by that organisation) [60]. I remained in the United Kingdom and refrained from visiting the region where Xavier Justo remained imprisoned owing to Malaysian influence in Thailand for a full 18 months before Swiss pressure finally obtained his pardon and release.

There was worse to come. Soon after Najib executed his internal coup, a young prosecutor was reported to have been abducted from his car in moving traffic in KL (the incident was captured on CCTV), only to be found dead ten days later, submerged in a concrete-filled drum [61]. It became clear that it was he who had drawn up charges against Najib for criminal breach of trust and theft [62|. Following the murder, several frightened officials in Malaysia told me that they could do no more to counter the scandal.

Yet in mid-2016, Najib received a major setback. A joint team from the US Department of Justice and the FBI - which had contacted and interviewed me after I published my stories on 1MDB — held a stunning press conference headed by US Attorney General Lorretta Lynch to announce a billion-dollar asset seizure of mansions, jets, super-yachts, businesses and even The Wolf of Wall Street, all bought with money traced from IMDB through the bogus joint ventures that Jho Low had framed with PetroSaudi and Aabar. Their court deposition [63] laid out in excruciating detail exactly how hundreds of millions had been transferred through off-shore companies and a string of private and major multi-national banks. Over the next months, the investigations expanded globally, exposing further billions in stolen assets from the fund [64].

Jho Low and several officials from the fund fled into hiding but Najib continued to dig in, declaring emergency powers and imprisoning critics without trial [65]. The fact that money from the fund had been found by the FBI to have supplied Najib’s holidays and diamonds, luxuries and anti-ageing treatment for his wife was alternately denied or dismissed as a ‘mistake’.

Najib had such control over the country that all the experts opined that, notwithstanding the scandal, he would breeze through the next general election [66]. Yet, despite the domestic media clamp-downs, news of the scandal and the international investigations now being undertaken by the Swiss, Singaporean, Luxembourgish and French authorities reached the public in Malaysia — thanks again to social media. My banned articles recording the unfolding investigations were circulated through Facebook, WhatsApp and emails.

When the election was finally called, in early 2018, the electorate, revolted by the blatant corruption and the authoritarian repression, deserted Najib and the decades-old Barisan Nasional regime in droves. The scandal had brought together old enemies from the opposition, who created a united front under the 93-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The popular strongman and predecessor of Najib himself bore a good deal of culpability in the eyes of reformers for the systemic corruption and over-centralisation of power; nonetheless, he had signed up for the reform agenda of progressive parties and pledged to hand over power to the imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim as the next prime minister designate. Amazingly, despite more bribes and gerrymandering than ever before, that coalition swept the dishonoured and discredited Najib from power when the country finally went to the polls. It was a historic moment and a new dawn for Malaysia [671.

For me, the outcome of that election of the 9th of May 2018 represented a massive vindication of the role of independent investigative reporting, empowered by the reach and impact of social media platforms. Despite the hugely funded professional counter-attacks, the population in Malaysia learnt the truth about their prime minister and voted on the guidance of evidence-based reporting as opposed to propaganda based on blatant lies. The unravelling of the IMDB scandal has demonstrated that effective investigative journalism can still make a difference.

Notes

1 www.sarawakreport.org/2010/06/exclusive-taibs-foreign-property-portfolio/;

www.sarawakreport.org/2010/07/saktisakto-another-taib-exclusive/

  • 2 www.sarawakreport.org/2010/07/growing-scandal-the-london-connection/
  • 3 www.sarawakreport.org/2011/03/cash-for-honours-at-adelaide-university/
  • 4 https://aliran.com/web-specials/2016-web-specials/fbi-lmdb-malaysian-people-defrauded-enormous-scale/
  • 5 www.sarawakreport.org/2013/10/spotlight-on-melikin-how-gangsterism-and-politics-mix-in-sarawak/; www.sarawakreport.org/2012/08/gangster-state/; www. sarawakreport.org/2012/07/what-justice-for-the-victims-of-timber-gangs-in-sarawak/; www.sarawakreport.org/2011/05/how-len-talif-salleh-objective-civil-serv antbn-politiciantimber-company-boss-swindled-long-terawan/
  • 6 www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/malaysia/10159557/Activist-sister-in-law-of-Gordon-Brown-deported-from-Malaysia.html
  • 7 https://rsf.org/en/malaysia
  • 8 www.sarawakreport.org/2011/11/sean-murrays-kuching-construction-connection-expose/; www.sarawakreport.org/2014/02/questions-for-taib-after-new-revelations-over-japanese-kickbacks-special-investigation/
  • 9 www.sarawakreport.org/2020/01/new-malaysia-should-clean-up-its-present-day-colonial-shame/
  • 10 www.sarawakreport.org/2020/01 /predator-logging-company-thrown-out-of-solomon-islands-is-owned-by-sons-of-sarawak-mp-expose/
  • 11 www.sarawakreport.org/2010/06/a-key-question-for-taib/
  • 12 www.sarawakreport.org/2011/03/film-tribute-to-ross-boyert/
  • 13 www.sarawakreport.org/2010/ll/hide-park-taibs-london-bolt-hole/ www.sarawakreport.org/2011/04/thief-minister-stole-election/; www.sarawakreport. org/2010/04/give-us-our-vote/

www. economist, com/asia/2018/03/08/how-malaysias-next-election-will-be-rigged;

www.sarawakreport.org/2013/05/bns-money-politics-leaves-malaysia-with-same-crime-minister/

www.sarawakreport.org/2013/04/what-tiong-gets-for-his-rml000-per-vote/; www.

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www. sarawakreport. org/2017/05/bustar i-the-bag-man-how-najib-bought-the-sarawak-election-further-exclusive/

www.malaysiakini.com/news/145649

www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/ This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

www.malaysiakini.com/news/330605

https://nypost.eom/2009/l 1/08/big-spending-malaysian-is-the-mystery-man-of-city-club-scene/

www.sarawakreport.org/2013/12/wall-street-greed-malaysian-money-expose/

www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2010/07/30/low-dispels-talk-he-received-rm500mil-airbase-job

www.fraud-magazine.com/cover-article.aspx?id=4295001869

www.sarawakreport. org/2014/01/wow-we-enter-riza-azizs-secret-beverly-hills-man-

sion-hollywood-exclusive/

www.sarawakreport.org/2016/05/riza-linked-company-seeks-to-invest-millions-in-multiple-ventures-globally/

https://deadline.com/2014/01/wolf-of-wall-street-producers-cease-and-desist-

sarawack-report-clare-brown-671868/;www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/wolf-wall-street-financiers-threaten-668550

www.sarawakreport.org/2011/07/dirty-tricks-campaign-targets-anwar-too/

www. sarawakreport. org/201 l/08/taib-paid-out-5-million-to-attack-sarawak-report-international-expose/

www.newyorker.com/ magazine/2018/06/25/the-reputation-laundering-

firm-that-ruined-its-own-reputation; www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ the-arms-company-the-oligarch-and-the-ex-pms-sister-in-law-lobby-firms-wikipedia-hit—list—6274541 .html

www.sarawakreport. org/2018/05/najib-lied-about-umno-links-to-sclcambridge-

analytica/; www.theguardian.eom/politics/2019/aug/01/revealed-johnson-allys-firm-secretly-ran-facebook-propaganda-network

www.sarawakreport.org/2015/10/defamation-games-a-swiss-pr-anonymous-attacks-a-fake-twitter-army-and-information-they-all-share/

www.sarawakreport. org/2012/08/malaysias-poison-blogger-exposed-in-the-us/;

www.politico.com/blogs/media/2013/03/joshua-trevinos-malay-payday-l 58247

www.sarawakreport.org/2011/08/bbc-suspends-all-fbc-programmes-pending-enquiry/

www.sarawakreport.org/2015/11 /liars-forgers-and-paid-pr-people-posing-as-activists-black-pr-against-sarawak-report-exposed/

www.sarawakreport.org/2014/05/1 mdb-backed-jho-low-with-ukl billion-exclusive-expose/

www.sarawakreport. org/2015/02/heist-of-the-century-how-jho-low-used-petrosaudi-as-a-front-to-siphon-billions-out-of-lmdb-world-exclusive/ https://theconversation.com/how-a-swiss-bank-was-toppled-by-a-financial-scandal-in-malaysia-and-what-can-be-learned-from-it-100130

www.straitstimes.com/business/mas-imposes-penalties-on-standard-chartered-bank-and-coutts-for-lmdb-related-breaches

www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-scandal-swiss-falcon-private/falcon-bank-faces-swiss-criminal-probe-in-1 mdb-case-idUSKCN 12C134 www.justice.gov/archives/opa/page/file/877166/download

www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2184302/malaysia-fines-audit-firm-deloitte-serious-breaches-linked

www.sarawakreport.org/2016/03/jho-lows-latest-party-pals-are-from-the-un/ www.ft.com/content/3fl 61 eda-3306-11 ea-9703-eea0cae3fDde; www.sarawakreport. org/2019/11/goldman-sachs-lied-and-denied-over-lmdbs-billion-dollar-thefts/ www.sarawakreport.org/2013/07/goldman-sachs-us200million-charge-for-lmdb-bond-issue/

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www.sarawakreport.org/2015/02/heist-of-the-century-how-jho-low-used-petro saudi-as-a-front-to-siphon-billions-out-of-lmdb-world-exclusive/; www.thetimes. co.uk/article/harrow-playboy-linked-to-troubled-malaysian-fund-7fq321f5vdr; www. nytimes.com/2016/07/21 /world/asia/ lmdb-malaysia-us-assets-seized.html; www.

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www.nytimes.com/2019/12/16/business/goldman-sachs-l mdb-tim-leissner.html

www.sarawakreport.org/2016/03/khadems-kool-cars-cash-buyer-wanted/

www.sarawakreport.org/2016/08/90-federal-police-officers-raided-edmond-de-rothschild-bank-how-aabar-scandal-could-dward-1 mdb/

https://dealbreaker.com/2020/02/andrea-vella-banned

www. euro money, com/ article/bl2kmz59ml 2yj8/jho-low-says-it-aint-so-malaysian-tycoon-denies-role-in-1 mdb-heist-of-the-century

www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/28/lmdb-inside-story-worlds-biggest-fman cial-scandal-malaysia; www. youtube, com/watch?v=CDYIzTME6zE

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  • 61 www.nst.com.my/news/2016/04/138783/kevin-inorais-was-smothered-death-being-stuffed-drum-pathology-expert
  • 62 www.sarawakreport.org/2015/07/arrest-warrant-for-the-prime-minister-the-real-reason-the-attorney-general-was-fired-exclusive/
  • 63 www.justice.gov/archives/opa/page/file/877166/download
  • 64 www.thetimes.co.uk/article/jho-low-the-man-accused-of-stealing-5bn-to-buy-his-way-into-hollywood-xnvx6hlqz
  • 65 www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-scandal-idUSKBNl 311XP
  • 66 www.economist.com/leaders/2018/03/10/malaysias-pm-is-about-to-steal-an-election
  • 67 www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44036178
 
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