Malaysia’s stunning financial scandal

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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has been rocked for more than a year by a financial scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak, a state investment firm, and an alleged frenzy of embezzlement stunning in its scope and complexity.

Authorities in a half-dozen countries have launched investigations into suspicions that several billion dollars was looted from complicated financial transactions involving 1MDB and parked around the world.

Following are answers to key questions in the affair.

What is 1MDB?
In 2009, a sovereign wealth fund owned by a northern Malaysian state was rebranded by Najib as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, and turned into a federal entity focusing on investments in strategic development projects.


The fund is owned by the finance ministry, which is headed by Najib. He also chaired the company’s advisory board until it was dissolved in May.

Its wide-ranging investments have included power plants and other energy assets in Malaysia and the Middle East, as well as major real estate developments in Kuala Lumpur.

How did the graft allegations come out?
By 2014, concerns began to emerge over reports that 1MDB was more than $11 billion in debt as a result of a massive borrowing spree and a series of opaque overseas acquisitions.

Late that year it missed a payment on a nearly $1 billion loan. Though it eventually paid off the loan, its continued debt troubles brought intensifying scrutiny.

What are some key allegations?
In 2009, 1MDB invested $1 billion in a short-lived joint venture with PetroSaudi Holdings, a Saudi Arabian energy company. Media reports citing e-mails among players in the deal say they indicate $700 million disappeared from the venture and may have gone to a close Najib family associate, a charge that 1MDB hotly denies.

In another instance, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund this year accused 1MDB of failing to pay back a loan of more than $1 billion.

1MDB insists it repaid the loan, but a Wall Street Journal report said documents show the money was paid to a shadowy British Virgin Islands company unrelated to the Abu Dhabi fund.

In April, a Malaysian parliamentary report said 1MDB made more than $4 billion in suspicious payments to the now-dissolved British Virgin Islands company.

How is Najib implicated?
In July 2015, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Najib had received payments totalling $681 million in his personal bank accounts in 2013. Subsequent reports said the money originated from 1MDB and may have exceeded $1 billion, which 1MDB denies.

Najib at first rejected the report as false and threatened legal action, but his government later acknowledged the payments. It said earlier this year the funds were a “personal donation” from the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in April said it was a “genuine donation” but only after weeks of Saudi silence that fuelled doubts about the alibi. The nature of the “donation” has never been fully explained.

Najib and 1MDB strongly deny the “donation” came from the company.

Has anyone faced justice?
Authorities in Switzerland and Singapore have frozen millions in assets on suspicion of 1MDB-related embezzlement and money-laundering, but so far no major figures have been brought to justice.

The most notable casualty so far has been Switzerland-based BSI Bank, which Swiss authorities accused of “serious breaches” of money-laundering regulations in its dealings with 1MDB.

Swiss regulators last month approved plans for BSI Bank to be taken over by another private banking group and eventually dissolved.

A half-dozen countries including the United States are still investigating the affair.

What impact has this had on Malaysia?
Over the past year, Najib has purged 1MDB critics from his cabinet, curbed domestic investigations, and moved to prevent further discussion of the scandal, sparking accusations he was clamping down to save his skin.

As a result, Najib has dramatically strengthened his control of the country. A state-level election and two parliamentary by-elections in recent weeks were won handily by Najib’s ruling coalition, further bolstering his position.

Analysts say 1MDB looks unlikely to unseat Najib and that the various foreign investigations are so far not expected to touch him due to the carefully constructed complexity of the questionable money flows.

AFP

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