1MDB: Extraordinary corruption scandal

Men walk past a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015.
Men walk past a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's extraordinary 1MDB corruption scandal allegedly saw top officials loot billions from state coffers and go on a worldwide spending spree - buying a US$250 million (S$345 million) yacht and a painting by Vincent van Gogh, and financing a Hollywood blockbuster.

Najib Razak, the then Prime Minister, was a key figure in the plundering of sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and was convicted yesterday in his first corruption trial linked to the fraud.

WHAT WAS 1MDB?

1MDB was a state investment fund which Najib launched in 2009, shortly after becoming prime minister.

Its portfolio included power plants and other energy assets in Malaysia and the Middle East, as well as real estate in Kuala Lumpur.

The fund was closely overseen by Najib.

Whistle-blowers say Low Taek Jho, a jet-setting Malaysian financier close to Najib but with no official position, helped set up 1MDB and made key financial decisions.

Concerns escalated in 2014 as 1MDB slid into an US$11 billion debt hole, and intensifying public scrutiny revealed missing funds.

The scandal first came to light through the Sarawak Report news portal, and gained further traction in 2015 when The Wall Street Journal published documents showing that Najib received at least US$681 million in payments to his personal bank accounts.

RICH LIVING

The United States Justice Department launched its own probe following claims that stolen Malaysian public money was laundered through the US financial system, and has filed lawsuits seeking some US$1.8 billion in assets allegedly purchased with the cash.

The department said more than US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB between 2009 and 2015 by high-level officials at the fund and their associates.

Tens of millions of dollars were used in 2012 by Najib's stepson Riza Aziz, an aspiring film producer, to fund the Hollywood film The Wolf Of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

 
 

Hundreds of millions were also used, mainly by Mr Riza and Low, to purchase high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London.

A Claude Monet painting bought for US$35 million, a Van Gogh for US$5.5 million, a US$35 million Bombardier jet, a US$100 million stake in EMI Music Publishing, and a US$250 million yacht were also ticked off the shopping list.

POLITICAL TURBULENCE

Najib desperately sought to contain the scandal, targeting critics and introducing repressive laws, but the allegations hit the popularity of his long-ruling coalition and contributed to a shock election defeat in 2018.

A new government headed by veteran politician Maha-thir Mohamad, now aged 95, came to office on a wave of public anger, and reopened investigations.

Najib was hit with dozens of charges, and his first trial over the scandal finally started in April last year.

 
 

But in February this year, the reformist alliance collapsed after bitter infighting, and a new coalition that included Najib's scandal-plagued party seized power.

There were concerns this could impact Najib's trials - particularly after 1MDB-linked charges against Mr Riza were unexpectedly dropped in May.

THE TRIAL

But those fears proved unfounded after a judge yesterday found Najib guilty of all seven charges in his first trial linked to 1MDB and sentenced him to 12 years' jail.

The case centred on allegations that RM42 million (S$13.6 million) was transferred to the 67-year-old's bank accounts from SRC International, a former unit of the fund.

His lawyers insisted that he had no knowledge of the transfers, and claimed that Low was the true mastermind behind the scam.

 

But Justice Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali said the idea that Low had tricked Najib was "far-fetched", and also dismissed the argument that the former leader believed the money in his account was a donation from Saudi royalty.

It is not the most significant of the trials he is facing. That one began in August last year, with Najib accused of illicitly obtaining RM2.28 billion from 1MDB.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2020, with the headline '1MDB: Extraordinary corruption scandal'. Subscribe