Exposing the world’s biggest financial heist, the so-called 1MDB scandal, turned out to be an adventure in more ways than one.
It was a story I had worked on from the ground up that exposed the theft of $8billion dollars from a Malaysian development fund by corrupt officials accused of working for the country’s then prime minister Najib Razak.
It was a three-year tussle to expose the truth that came at great personal cost.
As I found myself in the thick of the biggest investigative story of my career, I suffered state-backed computer hacking of my systems. Myself and my family were stalked by private security companies; my house was under surveillance.
I was the target of death threats and numerous criminal charges; a heavily funded PR operation waged online hate campaigns against me. The Malaysian government of the time tried, unsuccessfully, to get Interpol to arrest and extradite me to stand trial for ‘activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.’
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Even the publishing of my book on the expose has been disrupted, with libel lawyers threatening not only my publisher, but every single bookshop in Britain in an attempt to prevent it being sold.
So, how does a lone journalist uncover the world’s biggest financial scandal?
Having grown up on Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo, I had become increasingly incensed by the seemingly mad and wanton destruction of the world’s third largest and most biodiverse rainforest, the Borneo Jungle.
In just a couple of decades this precious region had been decimated and replaced with oil palm trees, without a thought given to the environmental devastation or the rights of the indigenous people, who were left destitute.
It soon became clear the driving reason behind such folly was unrestrained greed and rampant corruption that appeared to go straight to the top of the Malaysian government. The discovery proved to be the unravelling of the whole scandal.
In 2010, I began looking at the wider problems of endemic corruption in the region and reporting it in my blog The Sarawak Report. Hiding behind the vast sums pouring into Malaysia’s economy from Borneo’s timber and oil industry was a thriving culture of corruption and a cash-for-seats system, which had kept Najib’s ruling party continuously in power for over six decades since independence.
Najib, far from seeking to act on the corruption issues I had been exposing, seemed interested only in cashing in for himself and willing to deal with the local timber mafias, in return for the delivery of crucial seats.
So, when at the start of 2014 I received a tip off that the youthful stepson of that very prime minister had emerged as a leading name in Hollywood, I smelt a big story. And the more I looked into it the more suspicious and questioning I became.
Riza Aziz had been appointed the producer and co-funder of the $100 million dollar Martin Scorsese block-buster Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He had barely embarked on a banking career before suddenly changing tack and taking on one of the biggest productions in Hollywood as a complete novice in the business. Who was investing in such a risky venture, one had to wonder?
Ironically, the film detailed the mad antics of a bunch of young Wall Street con men, who had stolen vast sums of money to splurge on the high life. I soon discovered the high-rolling excesses of Riza and his Hollywood crowd paled the scenes of the movie into insignificance.
Riza offered no explanation for such sudden wealth, but I soon identified a likely source when I spotted his connection to a notorious young Malaysian businessman named Jho Low, who had already caught the attention of western newspapers. He had been dubbed the mysterious party “whale”, breaking spending records in all the top nightclubs. He was reportedly buying yachts and private jets, Beverly Hills mansions, New York penthouses and splurging ostentatious millions at casino hotspots from Las Vegas to San Tropez.
A troupe of Hollywood grandees from DiCaprio, to Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Miranda Kerr had been the beneficiaries of this mysterious Malaysian billionaire, some enjoying lavish parties drenched in Cristal champagne and being sent vastly expensive gifts. DiCaprio was given a Picasso by Jho (which his charitable foundation has since returned) and Kardashian was reprtedly given a white Ferrari.
I knew that Jho had close ties to Prime Minister Najib and his spendthrift second wife Rosmah Mansor - Riza’s mum. He was known to have been recommended as Najib’s key advisor in the setting up of a major state development fund - 1MDB.
1MDB had already become the subject of considerable controversy by the time Wolf of Wall Street was released in January 2014. Billions of dollars raised by the fund appeared to have disappeared and was unaccounted for. I sensed the probability this could be theft in plain sight on a humongous scale, where a powerful politician, used to operating in the protected environment of immense centralised power in his own country, reckoned he and his consorts could simply get away with hiding the figures and passing on the losses to taxpayers.
As I unravelled the story, I was able to demonstrate how several major banks had got involved in helping raise and transport the money via the offshore system into the personal bank accounts of Najib, Jho and Riza, along with a number of co-conspirators.
The investigation was by no means plain sailing. The reaction and backlash against me has been aggressive and extreme. But I managed to gain the attention of a branch of the US department of justice that took my claims seriously.
The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Unit, together with other global regulators, eventually determined the money that funded the film, as well as Jho’s superyacht, jet, mansions, masterpieces of art, gambling sprees and all the rest had been funds from 1MDB.
The political fallout from the story happened in May, when something Malaysians had come to consider to be an impossibility actually took place. Najib and his all powerful ruling coalition were ejected from office at the last election, thanks to a landslide swing against the regime prompted by the 1MDB scandal.
Prime Minister Najib had continuously denounced me as an enemy of the Malaysian state and accused me of spreading Fake News. But to me that peaceful change of government was vindication of the important role of journalism in informing the public and holding the rich and politically powerful to account.
Post-election raids on Najib’s house brought to light secret stashes of tens of millions of dollars in cash and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of luxury goods, including more than 200 designer handbags. Najib continues to deny wrongdoing. Still missing are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds known to have been bought with 1MDB money and billions are still thought to be hidden in secret bank accounts around the world. The hunt for 1MDB’s missing billions continues, and Jho remains a fugitive. His western lawyers and PR firms continue to issue statements proclaiming his innocence and threatening me with legal repercussions.
For my part, I will return my focus to the issues that set me on to 1MDB in the first place: the destruction of Borneo and abuse of its vulnerable indigenous peoples, the corruption of which 1MDB was but a part.
Clare Rewcastle Brown is the author of The Sarawak Report: The Inside Expose Of The 1MDB Scandal, available for purchase here.
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