You couldn’t make a story like this up, a Hollywood script writer’s dream come to life: the shady banker and a prime minister conspiring to loot a sovereign wealth fund of billions of dollars.
Yet the story continues to unfold for a worldwide audience, and the twists and turns just keep on coming.
Former Malaysian prime Minister Najib Razak stands accused of multiple counts of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in two concurrent trials at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur.
His supposed accomplice and Penang-born financier Low Taek Jho — also known as Jho Low — is on the run from Malaysian justice, having absconded shortly after the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal broke in 2015.
Najib was also no stranger to controversy, with two linked scandals following him to the prime minister’s office in 2009, but he had managed to circumvent them.
Yet, 1MDB was different.
By silencing the domestic media and applying pressure in the usual places, Najib no doubt thought he had done enough to dodge another bullet.
Yet, the very crux of the scandal grated with the Malaysian public: greed and billions of taxpayers’ money looted.
Discontent was fuelled by a steady stream of online news reports funnelled through social media channels, one area of the media Najib’s administration had absolutely no idea how to approach, let alone control.
Malaysians had always questioned Najib’s extraordinary wealth, given his modest, staple civil servant’s income, having taken on his late father’s parliamentary seat at an early age.
However, he and his wife Rosmah Mansor were regularly seen enjoying their lavish lifestyle.
Her penchant for designer handbags and bling had become a running joke among the populace, notwithstanding extended shopping trips to Paris and New York on the taxpayers’ dollar.
Meanwhile, he had been trying to lead a national austerity drive, insisting the people dig deep and help bear the brunt of hard times.
Rosmah, in her own crass attempt to show she was in touch with the voting public, said she was having to cut down on her weekly trips to the hairdresser, at a cool US$300 a pop and more than the monthly living wage.
While overseas, investigations into 1MDB began in Singapore and Switzerland, migrating to New York, London and Hong Kong.
1MDB had gone global for all the wrong reasons.
In the U.S., “Malaysian Official 1” could not be named for diplomatic reasons. Investigators quietly revealed that Najib was the man in the crosshairs.
Public anger turned to massed protests and ministerial dissent.
Ministers soon became political opponents and then part of the opposition, which became the government for the first time in Malaysia’s 61-year history at the 2018 general election.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad wrested power from his former protégé in a campaign to end rampant political corruption.
Mahathir moved swiftly, as soon as the king gave his blessing to the new government, ordering the arrest of Najib and Rosmah, ensuring they at the very least could not leave the country.
Jho Low was long gone.
Over the coming months, reports sprang up he was in Thailand. Nope, scratch that, Hong Kong. No wait, mainland China.
Some went as far to say he was in New York or had even returned to his native Penang.
While the Scarlet Pimpernel stories kept the public mildly amused, Mahathir knew full well his dilemma: a comprehensive case against Najib would take time to build, but the people were hungry for justice to be done.
In a country where corruption is endemic at all levels, Malaysia needs to land a big fish, ideally one from the highest rung of government to show that no one is above the law and to satisfy a public so downtrodden in the belief that money buys power, full stop.
Meanwhile, up until Najib’s arrest, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) had been largely a toothless organisation, detaining low level policemen and civil servants for bribery, paltry sums on a good day with a following wind, but not really worth the courts’ time.
Now, to use the book title, a billion-dollar whale had dropped right into its lap.
The major problem for Malaysians is the legal system is notoriously slow, glacial even. Malaysian patience is not.
Notwithstanding the complexity and array of criminal and civil cases mounting up against the former PM, there have been endless challenges to the judicial process, dragging proceedings out interminably.
So far in the cases that have come to court, the prosecution has made its case in the first trial: SRC International, an offshoot of 1MDB, for which Najib sat as chairman of the board.
The prosecution is still making its case in the concurrent second trial, regarding Najib’s governance of 1MDB directly. There are 63 witnesses on the list to give evidence.
So, it will take some time.
The prosecution argues Najib was the absolute authority for both companies, signing off on every decision.
Najib’s defence team have relied on deflection.
The defence points to Jho Low as the guilty party, with Najib too busy running the country to have intimate knowledge of what was going on.
Without Jho Low around to offer a defence of his own, or even testimony, the judge will have to decide whether indeed Najib does have crimes for which to answer.
This would appear to be the story so far.
Not quite. The latest twist is this: Jho Low has resurfaced. Moreover, he seems willing to co-operate, having agreed a deal to settle civil suits against him in the U.S. to the tune of US$1 billion.
It appears he has been a guest of one or more of the Middle Eastern states where, it is understood he is connected at the highest level.
Meanwhile, the word on the street is he has been offered Cypriot citizenship.
What happens with Jho Low very much depends on the outcome of Najib’s current trials.
The attitude of the Malaysian government today is: we want Jho Low back, no deals. Naturally, there is a warrant for his arrest and a concurrent Interpol red notice.
This implies the government is confident it can secure a conviction in either of Najib’s trials.
However, if things do not go according to script and Najib is acquitted or the cases thrown out, there needs to be a Plan B.
Mahathir’s government still has to meet the expectations of an impatient public demanding justice, justice he had promised to deliver quickly.
Malaysia has very little diplomatic or economic clout, so cannot apply pressure on any nation to secure Jho Low’s return, a point reinforced by supposition that he is in the Middle East — a region with which Malaysia is supposed to closely allied.
So, if the country cannot reclaim one of its citizens from a purported ally, what hope does it have elsewhere?
A deal would need to be struck.
Jho Low’s statement and any supporting documentation could be entered into evidence for an appeal, as it could for future trials.
The problem comes in Jho Low’s likelihood of giving evidence. He would be unwilling to testify without some degree of leniency or even immunity from justice.
For political and judicial expediency, Mahathir would need to consider a deal, land that big fish quickly and satisfy the Malaysian hunger for justice.
He is heading a fragile government, wracked by public bickering and sleazy gutter politics, and which has not delivered on its election campaign promises.
He needs to reel in that big fish quickly and satisfy the hunger pangs of the Malaysian public.
After which, there are plenty more fish on the MACC’s hook.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.