What connects 1MDB, Najib, Jho Low, champagne and Hollywood?

By Zofia Reych

Najib Razak is not doing very well nationally. Last year his popularity fell to an all time low of 23%, and this year he is not likely to be making advances. The still unresolved 1MBD scandal, Panama Papers and growing tensions with traditional Malay rulers are piling on the pressure.

The international press is extremely critical in their judgment of Najib’s politics and, internally, both public opinion and some of Najib’s peers from UMNO are pining for a new leader. However, the prime minister maintains a strong grip on the country despite being mired in controversy.

He is ruthless in removing his critics from the political scene and now even his most prominent enemy Mahathir Mohamad is facing no fewer than four official investigations over sedition charges.

Najib might not be good for Malaysia, but he might be Malaysia’s only choice. A politician brought into power thanks to family connections, he is well aware of the importance of surrounding himself with influential friends and it might indeed be his most effective weapon against those lobbying for his resignation. In the words of the late M.G.G. Pillai, “nepotism, like corruption, is a crime in Malaysia only if the wrong party is guilty of it”.

Yes, Najib Razak is not doing well, but at least he has got powerful friends who might save him.

Jho Low’s good fortune

A young international business tycoon, Jho Low’s name recently resurfaced in newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons in connection with the 1MBD scandal. Often said to be involved in shady business transactions and described by the press as a “staple of the NYC party scene”, the young businessman has always maintained close ties with Najib Razak.

His full name is Low Taek Jho. The world first heard about him when he sent 23 bottles of Cristal champagne over to Lindsay Lohan’s table at her 23rd birthday party. Apart from spending money, he also knows how to make it. He started learning the craft at an elite Harrow School for Boys in London, and went on to earn a prestigious degree from Wharton Business School. As much as he was learning, he was also making powerful friends.

At Harrow, he became close with Riza Aziz, incidentally Najib Razak’s stepson, now a film producer at Red Granite Production known for blockbusters such as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “Wolf” was Aziz’s company’s first big project and it was not clear how he amassed the $100 million necessary to get the R-rated, drug and sex-fuelled story off the ground. An international investigation is now underway as it is thought highly likely that a big chunk of the money defrauded from 1MDB was injected into Red Granite via a complicated system of offshore companies.

But that is not all for the 1MDB and Jho Low’s ties. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang maintains that Low, as a special advisor to Terengganu Investment Authority, later renamed 1MBD, was instrumental in installing Najib as its chairman.

A joint investigation by Sarawak Report and Wall Street Journal revealed transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars from companies said to be owned by Jho Low to private accounts held by Najib Razak.

The payments were made in 2012 and 2013. Prior to that, funds were allegedly injected from 1MDB into the accounts of Good Star, a mysterious company registered in Seychelles. Although initially it was believed to be a PetroSaudi International’s subsidiary, the investigation revealed Low as its sole shareholder. The sums in question exceed one billion dollars.

More friends and family

Powerful businessmen with access to the best deals and preferential treatment are still a norm on Malaysia’s political scene. Low is not the only one to have questionable business connections with Najib Razak. His network of powerful friends is so extensive that some call Malaysia under his rule “crony capitalism”.

Only last year Malaysian Resources Corp Bhd, in conjunction with George Kent Bhd, won a bid to expand the Kuala Lumpur’s railway network; a surprising fact given that it was one of the highest bidders. The key to the mystery is the fact that Malaysian Resources Corp’s main shareholder, Mohamad Salim Bin Fateh, is a good friend of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. George Kent’s Tan Kay Hock has been Najib’s golf partner for over 25 years. Their wives are often seen shopping together.

Other figures that come to mind include prime minister’s brothers. Nazir, Johari and Mohammad Razak all hold senior corporate positions in companies with close ties to the government. One of Najib Razak’s sons, Mohd Najib, went on to become the youngest ever vice-president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia. This feat, undoubtedly achieved with no help of his fathers, was overshadowed only by the fact that his name is mentioned repeatedly in Panama Papers.

Examples of nepotism in Najib’s environment can be listed ad infinitum. They may add to Najib’s negative press in Malaysia and abroad but, more importantly for him, they are what keeps him in power and what lines his pockets.