The major culprits in Malaysia’s epic 1MDB financial scandal may already have destroyed much of the evidence against them but newly minted Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng is confident a global money trail will reveal the truth.
He also hopes that will allow the government to recover some of the estimated US$4.5 billion worth of assets that disappeared from the books of the state investment fund.
Among those facing possible indictment on suspicion of graft at the fund is the former prime minister, Najib Razak, who has strenuously denied the allegations.
Lim, in an exclusive interview with This Week in Asia, said that whether losses from the 1MDB scandal could be recovered by the newly elected government was “a billion-dollar question”.
“I am sure that much of the evidence would have been destroyed but the global financial system has come a long way since the days of international money laundering,” he said.
“There is a money trail and you can’t completely cut off the money trail,” said Lim, who in his first week of office revealed the Najib administration had used funds to “bail out” 1MDB to the tune of some 7 billion ringgit (US$1.75 billion).
The fund, set up in 2009 after Najib came to power, was meant to promote economic development in Southeast Asia’s third largest economy.
Instead, its name – an acronym for 1 Malaysia Development Berhad – has gained infamy owing to allegations of corruption by prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has said some US$4.5 billion was looted from the fund between 2009 and 2014.
In a lawsuit to seize assets, the DOJ named a “Malaysian Official 1” – widely believed to be Najib – who received US$700 million in his personal accounts from 1MDB.
Najib has said the millions of dollars that were uncovered in his accounts after the scandal became public in 2015 were political donations from a Saudi monarch supportive of his Barisan Nasional coalition.
The Wall Street Journal, whose reporting thrust the scandal into the public limelight, at the same time published documents that showed 1MDB funds had been funnelled through intermediate entities to Najib’s accounts.
After Najib’s defeat in the May 9 general election, reports emerged that Malaysian prosecutors had ignored evidence presented to them showing this movement of funds.
Lim said investigators involved in the ongoing inquiry into the scandal called by the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had been receiving cooperation from countries such as the US, Switzerland and Singapore.
The US, for example, had already launched a bid to seize a US$250 million yacht named Equanimity owned by Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, a businessman and ally of Najib accused of involvement in the scandal. Lim said steps were also being undertaken to seize other assets such as properties in overseas capitals.
“Resolving the 1MDB scandal will go a long way as it is a symbol of everything that was wrong under the previous administration,” Lim said.
He added: “If we can clean it up and we can get back our money, whatever we can get back I’m sure will help to restore our finances and restore our country’s reputation in international financial circles.”
Lim, an accountant by training, had said in his first week of office that Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, and the sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional were involved in fundraising that was ultimately used to pay 1MDB’s debts – which amount to some 38 billion ringgit.
The central bank issued the fund a compound fine in 2016 for “breaching bank rules”.
At the time, some observers criticised the move for being weak given how evidence suggested the transgressions may have been criminal in nature.
In turn, the central bank said it did not have prosecutorial powers to take other forms of action.
In the interview, Lim said “the integrity and credibility of the regulators should not be questioned”.
“But if somehow that is affected, I think it raises serious questions. But let us make our judgment call based on facts and figures.”