Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International joins calls for probe into Malaysia's 1MDB fund

A man walks past a 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the funds flagship Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A man walks past a 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the funds flagship Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International on Tuesday joined mounting calls for Malaysia’s prime minister to launch an investigation into a state-owned investment vehicle hit by reports of murky deals and missing millions.

The company, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), has quickly emerged as a major liability for premier Najib Razak, who championed its launch in 2009 and chairs its board of advisers.

1MDB is widely reported to be struggling to pay off more than US$11 billion (S$15 billion) in debt, raising fears it could collapse and wreak havoc on Malaysia’s financial system.

Transparency International Malaysia called for a “full investigation into the numerous allegations of massive... financial and commercial crime” involving 1MDB, the anti-graft organisation said in a statement.

It made specific mention of a report this past weekend alleging US$700 million was diverted from a shadowy 2009 deal between 1MDB and a little-known Saudi energy firm, PetroSaudi.

The expose by Sarawak Report, a UK-based activist site that focuses on Malaysian corruption allegations, said the money was sent to a company controlled by an associate of Datuk Seri Najib’s family, a high-rolling Malaysian financier named Jho Taek Low.

It cited what it said were leaked e-mails in which some of those involved in the complex transaction state outright that PetroSaudi was to be used as a “front”.

AFP could not verify the authenticity of the e-mails.

Transparency said it feared an investigation “may uncover a plethora of larger issues such as corporate crime, embezzlement, corruption, misappropriation, mismanagement of funds, inappropriate decision-making and unethical behaviour, including and not limited to misuse of public office.”

Malaysia’s opposition has been demanding Mr Najib and 1MDB clarify the fund’s dealings and whether money was syphoned off to benefit those close to the premier.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, still an influential power-broker in Mr Najib’s ruling party, has also called for a full 1MDB audit.

A Najib spokesman declined comment on Transparency’s statement. His office has previously denied any wrongdoing by the Prime Minister.

Mr Najib, who is also finance minister, said at the weekend that if any misdeeds are proven, the perpetrators would face justice, but he has so far not answered the growing clamour for an investigation.

His long-ruling government is routinely accused by critics of using its tight grip on power to dodge accountability on recurring scandals.

1MDB has previously denied any links to Malaysian financier Low, who has been photographed partying with the likes of Paris Hilton.

But Sarawak Report said the e-mails, which it published, indicate he in fact orchestrated the PetroSaudi deal.

The whistle-blower site’s editor is Clare Rewcastle Brown, a former BBC journalist and sister-in-law to former British prime minister Gordon Brown.

She told website Malaysiakini in a story published on Tuesday that she had “thousands of documents” pertaining to 1MDB and the activities of Mr Low.

PetroSaudi has lodged a police report in Britain, accusing Sarawak Report of hacking. But Ms Rewcastle Brown denied the charge, saying the documents were passed to her.

1MDB released a statement Sunday saying it “notes with concern” the latest allegations, but declined AFP requests for further comment.

Adding to Mr Najib’s woes, a recent New York Times investigative piece alleged huge wealth in his entourage and multi-million-dollar purchases of luxury US real estate by shell companies linked to Mr Low.

These included homes purchased by Riza Aziz, Mr Najib’s stepson, the newspaper said.

Mr Najib’s office has said the report raised “false allegations.”