No End to Scrutiny Over Millions Sent to Malaysian Leader’s Accounts

New York Times
FEB. 5, 2016

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — After Malaysia’s attorney general cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of corruption charges involving hundreds of millions of dollars that ended up in his bank accounts, Mr. Najib issued a statement of his own.

“The matter has been comprehensively put to rest,” he said last week. “It is time for us to unite and move on.”

That has not happened.

Instead of answering the questions about the money and its possible links to a heavily indebted Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, the attorney general’s announcement has only sharpened them.

“It’s not logical at all,” said Azral Shah, 28, a computer network analyst taking a cigarette break outside a Kuala Lumpur high-rise this week. “I’m not sure what is the true story, but most of the nation doesn’t think that what they are telling us is true.”

But his statement has been overshadowed by fresh doubts, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia.

“There is no clear explanation as to how this huge sum of money was moved into Najib’s accounts, the banks used by these Arabs, the sources of the fund, the business of the donor,” Mahathir Mohamad, a former Malaysian prime minister who has become one of Mr. Najib’s harshest critics, wrote on his blog.

In Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that he accepted the attorney general’s opinion that there had been no wrongdoing, but he also said that he did not think that the money had come from the Saudi government or that it was a political donation.

“It is a private Saudi citizen, I believe, and the funds went to an investment in Malaysia,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

One member of the royal family and one associate of the family, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the money had come from a Saudi prince and confirmed that it was not a donation. The associate questioned the reported sum but said the funds were part of a business deal.

The attorney general’s decision shut down an investigation by Malaysia’s anticorruption commission, leading the panel to seek a review of the ruling, and the country’s former law minister filed suit to reverse it.

The decision has not stopped international inquiries. Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States are investigating transactions involving the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. Mr. Najib set up the fund and is the chairman of its advisory board.

The Swiss attorney general’s office said on Friday that its investigation had found serious evidence that suggested that $4 billion had been misappropriated from Malaysian state-owned companies. Some of that money was transferred into bank accounts of former Malaysian officials and former and current officials from the United Arab Emirates, the Swiss authorities say.

The announcement said the Swiss were looking into several business deals between United Arab Emirates state-owned companies and 1MDB, as well as allegations involving a small oil company called PetroSaudi that carried out a joint venture with 1MDB.

On Monday, Singapore said it had seized “a large number of bank accounts” in connection with the investigations.

Opposition politicians in Malaysia have demanded that Mr. Apandi, the attorney general, prove that 1MDB was not used as Mr. Najib’s political slush fund.

The question for Mr. Apandi was “how did he satisfy himself that, even if the funds deposited into the prime minister’s personal bank accounts came from the mysterious Arab donor, the money did not originate from 1MDB?” said Tony Pua, an opposition member of Parliament from the Democratic Action Party.

Mr. Apandi, appointed by Mr. Najib in the summer, has declined to answer questions or release details of his investigation. “I stand by my decision,” he said by text message. “No further comment.”

Nor has Mr. Najib publicly explained the money, though he has said that he had done nothing wrong and took no money for personal gain. The Swiss attorney general’s office said he was not one of the officials identified in their investigation.

Mr. Apandi has said that his office will cooperate with the Swiss inquiry, though some Malaysian officials complained that the Swiss announcement could strain bilateral ties and create bias in the news media. 1MDB says that it has not been contacted by foreign legal authorities, but it would cooperate with any investigation.

But if Mr. Apandi’s version of events is true, that raises other troubling questions.

A political donation of $681 million, equal to about 2.6 billion Malaysian ringgit, would be an exorbitant sum in Malaysian politics. An American presidential campaign costs about $1 billion. Malaysia has less than a tenth the population of the United States.

Such a large donation would not necessarily be illegal. Malaysian law restricts candidates for Parliament to about $50,000 a campaign, but there are no limits on spending by political parties or curbs on overseas funding.

If the donation was aboveboard, it may have taken a circuitous route. Malaysian investigators said the $681 million was transferred to Mr. Najib’s accounts in two deposits from a British Virgin Islands-registered company through a Swiss bank owned by an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, according to published reports.

The funds arrived in 2013, when Mr. Najib’s party, which has led Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957, faced a powerful election challenge. What some analysts have described as an orgy of campaign spending helped the party win a tight race.

Members of Mr. Najib’s cabinet have previously described the funds as political donations, and at least one prominent party member has acknowledged receiving funds from Mr. Najib.

“By the very fact that his party members have admitted they got a lot of money from the prime minister to run their campaigns, it’s an admission that they are privy to sources of funding, which they have not disclosed,” said Terence Gomez, a professor at the University of Malaya who researches money in the nation’s politics. “Now it’s been exposed, and we find out that a foreign country is supporting the prime minister and the party.”

At the same time, the attorney general suggested that Mr. Najib did not need $681 million for the election since he returned most of it. Mr. Apandi did not say how, when or to whom the money was returned, nor what Mr. Najib did with the remaining $61 million.

In his news conference, the attorney general also addressed another deposit in Mr. Najib’s account, about $13 million that was transferred from SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB now owned by the Finance Ministry, which Mr. Najib controls. Mr. Apandi said that there was no evidence Mr. Najib “had any knowledge” of the deposit.

Mr. Najib has not commented on the transaction.

Mr. Apandi raised more questions after he briefly waved a copy of his investigative report before reporters. Cameras flashed, photographs were scrutinized, and it appeared that an additional $8 million from SRC flowed into one of Mr. Najib’s accounts in 2014.

Neither the attorney general nor Mr. Najib have explained that transaction.

“They’ve stopped caring about whether the story makes any sense,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council. “They just want the image of closure.”

Despite public concerns, Mr. Najib seems to have consolidated his position, last year dismissing a deputy prime minister who raised questions about the 1MDB scandal. Likewise, Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of Mr. Mahathir and a leading critic of Mr. Najib, was ousted on Wednesday as the top official of a federal state, in what he called retribution for publicly criticizing Mr. Najib.

But the slowing economy, the low price of oil and a recently introduced tax on goods and services as well as the continuing 1MDB scandal have dampened broader public support, said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency in Malaysia. Mr. Najib is likely to face a tough challenge to retain his position in elections expected in 2018.

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  1. #1 by lauksnatlks on Sunday, 7 February 2016 - 8:51 am

    The end appears to be in sight and all the info so far points to one conclusion. Najib is checkmated.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Sunday, 7 February 2016 - 9:08 am

    Dis land is a PARADISE 4 d ruling politicians (elected servants of rakyat)
    Everything under control – prosecutor, judge, jury, n executioner all rolled in2 ONE entity

    As written above, “Mr. Apandi, appointed by Mr. Najib”
    “The attorney general’s decision shut down an investigation by Malaysia’s anticorruption commission”
    “attorney general cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of corruption charges”
    “The matter has been comprehensively put to rest” – case CLOSED, how wonderful

    Y n HOW lah, when d case is still so full of reasonable doubts
    Y cannot b investigated by MACC
    Y some individuals r ABOVE d law and can enjoy complete impunity (while suing others)
    Is dis a slave-master relationship, die die must protect d master

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