1MDB: Malaysia's extraordinary financial scandal

1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is a state investment fund which Datuk Seri Najib launched in 2009 shortly after becoming prime minister.
1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is a state investment fund which Datuk Seri Najib launched in 2009 shortly after becoming prime minister.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia's extraordinary 1MDB corruption scandal allegedly saw billions stolen from the country's sovereign wealth fund and spent on everything from Hollywood films to handbags.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was arrested on Tuesday (July 3) in the 1MDB graft probe set up by his successor, which has engulfed the ex-leader and his cronies since his shock loss at elections in May.

Here is a look back at the saga:

1. WHAT IS 1MDB?

1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is a state investment fund which Datuk Seri Najib launched in 2009 shortly after becoming prime minister.

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

The fund was closely overseen by Mr Najib.

Whistle-blowers say Mr Low Taek Jho, or "Jho Low", a shadowy, jet-setting Malaysian financier close to Mr Najib but who has no official positions, helped set up 1MDB and made key financial decisions.

After the scandal emerged, Mr Najib purged 1MDB critics from his government, curbed domestic investigations, enacted a tough new security law and generally lurched to the right.

Analysts accused him of imperilling Malaysia's already fragile democracy to save his skin.

2. HOW DID THE SCANDAL EMERGE?

Concerns escalated in 2014 as 1MDB slid into a US$11 billion (S$15.03 billion) debt hole, and the intensifying public scrutiny led to a string of revelations concerning missing funds.

The issue exploded in July 2015 when the Wall Street Journal published documents showing Mr Najib received at least US$681 million in payments to his personal bank accounts.

The US Justice Department has piled on the pressure by filing lawsuits to seize some US$1.7 billion in assets it said were purchased with stolen 1MDB money.

3. WHAT ARE SOME KEY JUSTICE DEPARTMENT ALLEGATIONS?

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

They said a figure it calls "Malaysian Official 1" knowingly received huge sums of 1MDB money. A Malaysian Cabinet minister has since confirmed that official was Mr Najib.

Tens of millions of dollars in stolen money were used in 2012 by Mr 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 used, mainly by Mr Riza and Mr Low, to purchase high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York, and London, a Monet painting for US$35 million, a Van Gogh for US$5.5 million, a US$35 million Bombardier jet and a US$100 million stake in EMI Music Publishing.

Low, who has been photographed partying with the likes of Paris Hilton and DiCaprio, allegedly used more than US$250 million in stolen cash from 1MDB to buy a 90-metre luxury yacht.

4. HAS ANYONE FACED JUSTICE?

Several private bankers have been jailed and banned from working in the financial industry in Singapore after being found guilty of charges related to the scandal.

Singapore has also shut down the local operations of two Swiss-based banks involved in the scheme.

JP Morgan Chase's Swiss unit was found to have committed serious breaches of anti-money laundering regulations in its dealings with 1MDB, according to the Swiss financial markets watchdog, but no fines or other sanctions were imposed.

But so far, no big fish have been hooked.

In 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that US authorities plan to file criminal charges against Mr Low relating to wire fraud and money-laundering.

Mr Najib shut down domestic Malaysian investigations, denying wrongdoing and saying the scandal was concocted by his political enemies.

5. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO MR NAJIB NOW?

Mr Najib's dramatic election left him facing the possibility of prosecution and imprisonment.

The election winner, 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has pledged to investigate the scandal and try to recover stolen funds from 1MDB that have been sent abroad.

Mr Najib and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, a deeply unpopular figure due to her reported love of luxury shopping trips and imperious manner, were barred from leaving the country soon after the election as speculation mounted the pair would flee the country.