Walking Free on Stolen Time, Najib Sees 1MDB Appeal Prospects Improve

When $681 million ended up in the personal bank account of then-Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak, he thought it was a political donation from the King of Saudi Arabia. Sure, it’s strange that the King transferred such a large sum directly into Najib’s personal account as opposed to that of a government institution, and yes, such a personal donation to a foreign leader was an unprecedented move by the Saudi royals. But the late King had assured Najib that some sort of donation was coming his way, so why not over half a billion dollars? Perhaps Najib would’ve examined the transfer a little more closely if he wasn’t so accustomed to lavish gifts. Indeed, when the financial anomaly came to light and the police raided his properties, that’s what filled the nearly 300 boxes the police discovered: gifts! The 567 luxury handbags (including a $219,000 Birkin bag) stuffed with $30 million in cash, the 423 designer watches, the 234 pairs of sunglasses, 14 tiaras, and 12,000 pieces of jewelry—all gifts from friends and admirers. So of course Najib was shocked—shocked!—to discover that the $681 million that appeared in his bank account actually came not from the Saudi royals, but from 1MDB, a government-run strategic development company where he served as chairman. Poor Najib was simply the unwitting victim of a network of 1MDB officers who embezzled $4.5 billion from the fund, kept comparatively meager amounts for themselves, and then deviously planted the lion’s share of the loot in Najib’s accounts to implicate him as the mastermind behind their corruption.

Unconvinced? You’re in good company. Neither was the trial court that convicted Najib last July on seven criminal charges including money laundering, criminal breach of trust, and abuse of power for his role in the 1MDB scandal, the world’s largest kleptocracy scheme. Najib faces 12 years in prison and a $49 million fine if this verdict is upheld. (And this is only the first case—he faces another 35 criminal charges in related cases.)

But alas, there is a very real possibility that Najib’s conviction will be set aside on appeal. Not because his account of how the $681 million ended up in his account has gotten any more plausible (despite Najib’s new legal strategy), but because Najib and his party—which is now back in power—are drawing out the process as best they can in order to give themselves sufficient time to subvert the judicial process and manipulate public opinion.

Continue reading

How Ethno-Religious Divisions Stymie Anticorruption Reform in Malaysia–and What to Do About It

In 2018, Malaysia surmounted the biggest test of its democracy since gaining independence from Britain in 1963—the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. That change in leadership occurred in the wake of the 1MDB scandal—one of the largest kleptocracy schemes ever uncovered—which implicated former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The repudiation of Najib and his party, UNMO, in the 2018 election was seen by many as a hopeful sign that the Malaysian people were no longer willing to tolerate the systemic corruption that had long been seen as business as usual. To be sure, the leader of the victorious coalition in the 2018 election—nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamed, who had previously served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 2001—was an unlikely champion of anticorruption and good governance reform. Yet in 2018, Mahathir’s victory was cause for hope that there would finally be genuine systemic reform.

Within two years, that hope had all but vanished. Prime Minister Mahathir was forced to resign in the middle of his first term in office and was replaced by UMNO politician Muhyiddin Yassin, who had served as Deputy Prime Minister under Najib. What went wrong? In an earlier post, I explored how a free press and multi-party government may have contributed to the failure of Mahathir’s coalition. But that is not the whole story. Those democratic institutions were susceptible to manipulation because of the deeply embedded ethnic and religious divisions that have been a defining feature of Malaysian politics since independence. By exacerbating racial and religious tensions, UMNO managed to convince key voting blocs that the biggest threat they faced was not corrupt politicians, but rather their neighbors who look and pray differently. In short, the reformist coalition ultimately failed because the Malaysian populace lost sight of their common enemy: the corrupt system of governance robbing them all.

Continue reading

A Lesson in Democracy? The Bitter Irony of Malaysia’s Failed Anticorruption Coalition

The tools of democracy may combat tyranny, but they do not always combat corruption. That’s not to suggest that democratic values run counter to anticorruption efforts. Indeed, a free press and a competitive multi-party system remain powerful tools in ensuring corruption does not take root. However, once corruption has snaked its way throughout a government, democratic values and institutions may be too easily manipulated to fight corruption effectively. Perhaps no world leader illustrates this seeming paradox better than Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister twice. His long first tenure, from 1981 to 2003, earned him notoriety as a near-dictator whose autocratic regime contributed to a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and cronyism. During his short-lived second tenure from 2018 to 2020, Mahathir was heralded as a champion of democracy—but the liberal democratic pillars that he had suppressed during his first tenure, most notably genuine political competition and a free press, contributed to the failure of his anticorruption efforts and ultimately to the fall of his government. The bitter irony is that the suppression of both political competition and press freedom helped to create Malaysia’s entrenched corruption during Mahathir’s first tenure, while the flourishing of political competition and the free press contributed to the failure of Malaysia’s attempts to root out this entrenched corruption during his second tenure.

Continue reading

The Goldman Sachs 1MDB Settlement Was Just and Appropriate

In late October, the United States Department of Justice announced a major settlement with the global investment bank Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the 1MDB scandal, an international bribery scheme in which high-level Malaysian officials embezzled an estimated $4.5 billion from a fund designed to finance infrastructure and other economic development projects. Between 2012 and 2013, Goldman Sachs helped raise $6.5 billion for 1MDB in three bond sales, and at least two Goldman bankers aided Jho Low, an advisor to the fund, in embezzling much of the capital. As part of the settlement with DOJ, Goldman agreed to pay over $2.9 billion to authorities in the US, Hong Kong, UK, and Singapore. Of the nearly $3 billion in fines, approximately $1.85 billion will go to the United States, over $600 million to Malaysia (on top of a $3.9 billion settlement the Malaysian branch of Goldman reached with the country in July), and $440 million to financial regulators in other nations.

Despite these eye-popping numbers—including what appears to be the largest fine to date levied under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—some experts have characterized the $2.9 billion penalty as “surprisingly small” or even “virtually meaningless” for a company that made $3.6 billion this last quarter alone. And, in what has become a common refrain among critics of these sorts of settlements with big firms, many complain that no senior Goldman Sachs executives were held personally, criminally liable for the bank’s role in the 1MDB fiasco.

Yet an assessment of the punishment must also include the penalties that extend beyond these government-imposed fines. Indeed, while some regard Goldman Sachs’ settlement as a slap on the wrist for a global corporation that’s a glutton for punishment, the implications of the settlement reveal a more just outcome than appears at first blush.

Continue reading