1MDB – The stories behind the scandal

Anyone who has been watching Southeast Asia for the last few years will no doubt have some awareness of the financial scandal surrounding the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund in Malaysia. The allegations of kleptocracy on a scale not previously witnessed anywhere in the world made international headlines and ultimately led to former Prime Minister Najib Razak suffering a heavy defeat in the May 9th general election, ending 60 years of continuous rule by UMNO. This shock defeat, despite excessive gerrymandering prior to the polls, came about largely due to the dogged determination of one individual to expose the true extent of the scandal and wrongdoing to the world.

British freelance journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown initially started her blog, Sarawak Report, to highlight the excessive deforestation and forced resettlement of indigenous people in the state of Sarawak. Through her campaigning and investigations she later uncovered stories of greed, deceit and corruption that ran to the very highest levels of the Malaysian government. Her blog and shortwave broadcasts via Radio Free Sarawak revealed the story to the Malaysian people and the wider world, and despite considerable efforts to shut the site and radio station down, she continued to be a very large thorn in the side of those she was investigating.

Details of the scandal attracted the attention of Wall Street Journal journalists, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, and their subsequent reporting of 1MDB truly gave the story an international audience, and earned them a Pullitzer Prize nomination.

In the wake of the historic election results, it was unsurprising that both parties rushed to publish their own books on the scandal.

Wright and Hope’s book, Billion Dollar Whale, focuses mainly on the role of Jho Low in the scandal and the allegations of how he siphoned off billions of dollars of Malaysian state funds and redirected them to different parties using various off-shore accounts. It also highlights the life of excess he enjoyed, partying with a string of Hollywood and music celebrities, buying luxury properties, yachts and works of art, as well as financing the making of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Billion Dollar Whale makes for compelling reading with its extensive research and fast-paced narrative, and the implication that Jho Low was very much the alleged mastermind behind the whole 1MDB operation despite not holding any official role. Much like The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie about former financier Jordan Belfort, that was allegedly financed with funds from the 1MDB heist, Billion Dollar Whale could at times be accused of glamourising Low’s purported actions and lifestyle, with the longer term impact on the Malaysian economy somewhat overlooked. Unsurprisingly, within a couple of weeks of its publication, film production rights were snapped up, with Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh in line to produce the movie.

Also published in September, Clare Rewcastle Brown’s book, The Sarawak Report, runs to 528 pages and is a much more comprehensive book that details how she first stumbled onto the story and the extensive investigation she then carried out over the following years to uncover the full extent of the scandal. Working mainly from her home in London, but also travelling to numerous countries, Rewcastle Brown trawled the Internet and worked with a close group of contacts in both Malaysia and elsewhere to collect evidence of the wrongdoing surrounding the 1MDB fund.

Far more wide-reaching than Billion Dollar Whale, The Sarawak Report will have been a far greater irritant and embarrassment to Najib and his cronies with its allegations that the former Prime Minister, his wife Rosmah and Jho Low, as well as some other non-Malaysian nationals were all key players in the 1MDB fiasco.

At times it’s quite a sprawling narrative, but this is principally because there are so many different strands to the story, and Rewcastle Brown is keen to get all the information out into the open.

In an age of shorter attention spans, fast news stories and the increase of clickbait articles on mainstream new sites, Rewcastle Brown’s indefatigable attention to detail and exhaustive quest to expose the wrongdoing are a testimony to first-class investigative journalism.

I would say both Billion Dollar Whale and The Sarawak Report are essential reading for anyone wanting to get an understanding of what the 1MDB scandal is all about. They present a different angle on the story so far, but rest assured that it’s not over yet, with Najib due to stand trial in Malaysia next year and other individuals and institutions having to answer some tough questions from the authorities in Malaysia and the US>

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