SINGAPORE and Hong Kong are going to further feel the heat of the explosive 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) saga on how billions were looted from Malaysia’s coffers, warns British investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown.
She’s certain the details of the millions that former prime minister Najib Razak and his wife allegedly took from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund and discreetly hid in these two countries, among other places, will soon emerge in the widening investigations of one of the world’s most scandalous financial scandals.
Rewcastle Brown, whose blog The Sarawak Report fuelled corruption allegations against Najib and his associates – leading to his unprecedented electoral defeat in May this year – gave further scary hints in a latest interview with TIME magazine.
She said she believed secret deals were done in Singapore so the funds Najib had squirrelled away would not be exposed. She adds: “I think there are still secrets to come out of Singapore on 1MDB, and probably Malaysians will want to prise them out.”
Rewcastle Brown, 59, a mother of two, is now renowned globally for breaking wide one of the biggest-ever corruption scandals to involve a head of state. And she knows there’s a price to pay and doesn’t hide the fact that she’s discreetly trailed every day, with death threats and selfie requests in equal measure, though it had yet to wreak the international consequences apparent today.
Her investigative instincts started when she was on the trail on environmental destruction in her birthplace, Sarawak, Malaysia, when she uncovered a shocking ‘Pandora Box’, which eventually exposed billions of dollars being siphoned from a state sovereign fund known as 1MDB.
In all, U.S. Department of Justice investigators believe more than US$7.5 billion was embezzled from the fund and spent on items such as Van Gogh paintings and luxury yachts. The sensational fallout from 1MDB has even implicated members of leading financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, which led to a change in government and spawned international criminal charges for figures like the playboy financier and The Wolf of Wall Street producer Jho Low.
For Rewcastle Brown, blowing the whistle on 1MDB has come with frightening repercussions. After more than three years of vilification and harassment, during which she was banned from Malaysia by the former prime minister, she was finally allowed to return. Just last month, she was hit with a defamation lawsuit prompted by revelations in her new book on 1MDB, The Sarawak Report.
She didn’t pull punches in latest TIME interview in Hong Kong where she spoke from the heart how the 1MDB scandal had affected globalisation and the regulation of international financial institutions.
She says: “I very rapidly realised that I had gone from a grassroots cause [environmental degradation in Sarawak] to possibly the most pressing and dangerous global issue of our times, which is capitalism gone absolutely rampant.
“This is not about politics, or about right and left — it’s about right and wrong. We are allowing the worst criminals on the globe to hide all their money and then redress it as if it’s respectable in our developed economies.
“A super rich elite have emerged thanks to the lack of law and order, and thanks to the lack of jurisdiction over the transfers of international wealth.”
On the Malaysian government under Najib, she lets fly: “If a government is overreacting in this way and treating you as such a dangerous threat, then you know that you are doing your job.
“What had turned from a slick financial operation became real criminality when these people were put under pressure. Suddenly people were being murdered and falsely imprisoned…there were attempts to frighten me as well with people with crew-cuts following me around. Suddenly you see their real side. Gone is the slick business suit and behind it is the ugly, snarling reality of run-of-the-mill criminals.”
Asked why her sources chose to trust her, despite the great personal risk to themselves, she replies boldly: “I think people knew why I was doing what I was doing. They knew I wasn’t part of an interest group. And, in a way, by attacking me, the Malaysian establishment identified me as someone who was principled and prepared to stand up to them.
WHY THIS EXPOSURE?
“People knew I was doing this because I cared, perhaps because they knew I had been born there.”
The icing on the cake came when her book turned out to be the secret weapon in the stunning election upset of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
She says: “To me, it was a complete vindication of why we have to have free journalism and a proper democratic process. Through 1MDB I was able to bring the reality of what was happening in Malaysia to people, and 1MDB was the key platform Mahathir used.
“The nation trusted him. He was an old battle-axe and a strongman, and had several unpleasantly authoritarian tendencies, but everyone trusted in his basic integrity and his concern for the nation. 1MDB proved just how off the scale Najib and his wife’s corruption was, and how dangerous it was.”
As 1MDB continues to unfold, what does she reckon will happen next?
Straightforwardly she replies: “It’s just gotten bigger and bigger. In the process of investigating this case, the U.S. Department of Justice has shown exactly what everyone suspected, which is that the offshore system is harboring outrageous criminality and money laundering on a jaw dropping scale.
“I disapprove of the analysis that Jho Low was special and that he pulled off something amazing, because I think he was just one of many. It’s a rare test case so far, as it opens the thread into a network of criminality, and it helps people understand what is clearly going on everywhere.
“This money goes into this network, and you find that you are touching everybody. Dozens of banks have been caught up in all of this, dozens of institutions and dozens of malpractices. There’s the network of lawyers ‘to go to’ for these things; the ‘to go to’ accountants; the ‘to go to’ incorporators; the ‘to go to’ politicians — so many of them have been flagged up in just this one case.”
In a clear reference to Singapore and Hong Kong, the kingpins in the Asian financial empire, she warns that “there are so many nooks and crannies that haven’t yet been looked into, and it will be interesting to see whether the diplomatic pressures kick in”.
Beware, she says: “There are still certain areas of this scandal that have not really been pursued.”