The hunt for Jho Low: Is net closing on 1MDB's billion-dollar whale?

Even for a man known as the "Asian Great Gatsby", 2019 was an eventful year - to put it mildly.

And for Low Taek Jho, the fugitive financier accused of masterminding a multibillion-dollar looting of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, lurid headlines would have been the least of his worries.

Throughout the year, Jho Low, as he is known, was hit by a series of setbacks as prosecutors in six jurisdictions, including Malaysia, doubled down on efforts to resolve the long-running saga and recover the lost funds.

Among the most sensational developments was Low's settlement with the American authorities, in which he agreed to give up nearly US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in assets - but without admitting any guilt.

But equally troubling for Low would have been indications from the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that he is now the country's most wanted man.

Like neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia has issued an arrest warrant for Low and in July a local court approved the forfeiture of 48 million ringgit (S$14.9 million) of funds from his father Larry Low Hock Peng's bank accounts.

Meanwhile, the hard-nosed new police chief Abdul Hamid Bador has intimated that he knows more than he can say in public about Low's whereabouts, and has pledged to "bring back" the businessman by the end of the year.

At one point, Low was believed to be living in China under the protection of officials in Beijing, but his publicists have denied this, saying he had gained asylum in a third country for being politically persecuted in Malaysia.

COURT REVELATIONS

Above all of these difficulties for Low, however, would have been revelations coming out of the Kuala Lumpur High Court, where his one-time friend and Malaysia's former prime minister, Najib Razak, is on trial for his own alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal.

Najib, who was defeated by his 94-year-old former mentor Mahathir in elections last year, faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail if he is convicted of just a handful of the 42 charges - ranging from corruption and abuse of power to money laundering - that have been filed against him.

In one of three ongoing trials against Najib, the prosecution is being led by Malaysia's Attorney General Tommy Thomas - a rare move that underlines the importance the Mahathir administration accords the cases.

The victory in May last year of Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan over Najib's Barisan Nasional, which had been in power for six decades, stunned the world at the time, but supporters say the upset had been a long-time coming because of brewing public discontent over the 1MDB scandal.

The corruption allegations against Najib were what had originally prompted Mahathir, a former prime minister, to quit the Barisan Nasional and join the opposition.

The scandal at 1MDB first emerged in 2015, when a handful of media outlets, including the local business newspaper The Edge Malaysia, the independent news portal Sarawak Report and The Wall Street Journal reported on its debilitating losses. Najib had set up the fund in 2009, ostensibly for the strategic investment of state funds.

The US Department of Justice upped the ante in 2016, when it filed civil-forfeiture complaints seeking to recover more than a billion dollars' worth of assets following what it claimed were fraudulent transactions - some passing through the American financial system - in which Malaysian officials and conspirators had diverted 1MDB funds to their private accounts.

It did not name Najib but referred to a "Malaysian Official 1" as an interested party in the case - at the time this was widely accepted to be a reference to Najib, though he and his closest allies denied it.

The siphoned funds, totalling some US$4.5 billion according to the US and up to US$7 billion according to Mahathir's officials, were allegedly used to fund Hollywood films, purchase designer jewellery, handbags and paintings by Monet and Basquiat, and throw A-list celebrity parties.

Low's US$250 million superyacht Equanimity - which has since been seized, sold and renamed Tranquillity by its new owners - was also allegedly bought with pilfered funds.

Tranquillity, the mega-yacht formerly known as Equanimity. PHOTO: AFP

PARTNERS IN CRIME?

In the current cases against Najib, the prosecutors' main argument is relatively simple - that he worked in tandem with Low to defraud the state fund for personal gain.

But Najib's lawyers have done all they can to suggest that if any wrongdoing was committed, it was done by Low without the knowledge of the former prime minister.

In a sworn statement of defence read out in court early this month, Najib said Low was already an adviser to 1MDB's predecessor organisation, the Terengganu Investment Authority, when the new body was set up.

Najib said he genuinely believed Low would be of use to the newly constituted 1MDB because of his purported strong contacts in the Middle East.

"These countries already had an excess of cash due to the increase in oil prices [at the time] … Because of that, I was of the opinion that the influence and relationships of Jho Low would indeed make meeting the goals and investments of 1MDB as they were intended to be," Najib told the court.

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That stance is at odds with Najib's position in 2015, when the scandal first surfaced.

Back then, Najib - still in power - dismissed cabinet ministers and the sitting attorney general after they quizzed him on his involvement with 1MDB.

Najib even went on record to say Low had "never worked in 1MDB" and that "all decisions and transactions" were "made by the company's management and board of directors".

But as recently as last week, Najib's lead lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah claimed the entire 1MDB scheme had been "devised by Jho Low together with four Arabs".

"And Jho Low is not being arrested despite our super IGP [inspector general of police] making promises. You remember the IGP making a promise three months ago that he will get Jho Low within two weeks?

I don't see the shadow of Jho Low," Shafee told reporters during a routine briefing.

"If Jho Low turns up today in this court and he is arrested, my client's defence is 100 per cent better."

Asked to respond to these assertions, Low's spokesman told This Week in Asia the businessman did not have further comment "beyond the numerous public comments he has made affirming his innocence, addressing proceedings in Malaysia and legitimate concerns" about Mahathir's government.

Najib's current efforts to distance himself from Low are far removed from the cosy relationship the two men - and Najib's wife Rosmah Mansor - once enjoyed, according to The Wall Street Journal journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope in their book Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World.

Wright told This Week in Asia that Najib's courtroom testimony "laying the blame for the 1MDB fraud at Low's door" was a clear sign that the embattled politician had all but abandoned him.

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"In truth, Najib knew about the fraud, but Low is looking more isolated than ever," Wright said.

The relationship has its roots in Low's days at Harrow School, an elite all-boys institution in London that counts Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru as among its distinguished alumni.

It was in London where Low first found a link to the Razaks - a clan of political blue bloods - when he befriended Riza Aziz, Rosmah's son from her first marriage.

Low himself was from a relatively wealthy family, though not as influential or moneyed as many of his peers who attended Harrow.

One report in 2015 cast his father Larry Low Hock Peng, recipient of the country's prestigious "Tan Sri" title, as a businessman of "somewhat deflated influence", who while having enough resources to send Low to school abroad, had faded in eminence in the 1990s.

Riza, a Hollywood producer whose Red Granite Pictures produced the Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street, has legal pickles of his own - partly linked to his relationship with Low. He is facing trial in Malaysia on five counts of laundering money misappropriated from 1MDB.

Documents tendered in court in September alleged that Low gave a cash advance of US$9 million to Red Granite Pictures to fund The Wolf of Wall Street.

Jho Low is pictured withmodel Gigi Hadid at a ball in New York City in 2014. PHOTO: AFP

PARTY TIME

Legal troubles and being on the run aside, Low continued to make tabloid headlines throughout the year as his penchant for partying and courting female celebrities proved irresistible to gossip mongers around the world.

In September, the celebrity gossip portal Page Six reported, based on a second-hand account, that Low had attended a private dinner party at a producer's house in Hollywood Hills. It quoted a source as saying: "I thought it was him. Could there be a guy that looks like him? Of course. But I thought it was him. People were convinced."

Often described as cherubic or apple cheeked, Low has been immortalised online with a handful of photographs that show him partying in US nightclubs with celebrities including Paris Hilton.

At one point, Low had dated the Australian model and actress Miranda Kerr.

In 2017, with the extent of the looting fully exposed, Kerr turned over to the US authorities jewellery worth millions of dollars that Low had allegedly bought with 1MDB funds. Kerr is not accused of any wrongdoing.

Another celebrity linked to Low, according to Billion Dollar Whale, is the Taiwanese singer Elva Hsiao - who was treated to a "million-dollar date in Dubai that included a laser show [and] custom-made jewellery presented to the singer by parachutists, violinists, and a fireworks show".

In August Elva, 40, announced she was in a relationship with the model Justin Huang.

Other celebrities he has rubbed shoulders with included Leonardo DiCaprio, Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxx.

In his home state of Penang in 2013 - back when he was not an international fugitive and was still in Najib's good books - Low flew in the rappers Ludacris and Busta Rhymes, and the Canto-pop stars Leon Lai and Alan Tam, for a free concert that coincided with the start of a general election.

LOW AND BEHOLD

So what lies ahead for Low in 2020? One thing seems certain: if he returns to Malaysia, it won't be voluntarily.

His publicist has repeatedly stressed that the financier will not return to clear his name - despite his insistence that he has committed no crime.

Low says he has no faith in the justice system under Mahathir's government.

Apart from Najib's trials, further details of Low's role in the alleged plunder may surface in legal proceedings linked to Goldman Sachs' role in raising US$6.5 billion for 1MDB.

In April, the US bank's former employee Roger Ng will stand trial in Malaysia for misleading investors when he arranged the bond sale.

Ng was this year extradited to the US for criminal proceedings, but is being returned to Malaysia as an agreement for American custody of the ex-banker lapses in March.

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Separately, Malaysia is expected to file criminal charges against Goldman Sachs sometime next year to recoup US$7.5 billion in reparations.

Mahathir in an interview last week said he preferred an out-of-court settlement but the bank's current offer of "one point something billion dollars" was too little.

Seventeen current and former directors of the bank are facing trial in Malaysia for their role in the bond-raising exercise.

Another near-certainty is that constant rumour-mongering and speculation on Low's whereabouts are here to stay.

Last year, Low fired a missive on his website accusing unspecified countries of being "poisoned by gossip, innuendo, and unproven allegations" and complaining that he had been "paraded in effigy through the streets of Kuala Lumpur".

In recent months, various reports have placed him in China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, Cyprus and St Kitts and Nevis have cancelled passports issued to Low through "citizenship for investment" schemes.

Wright said the Mahathir government "believes he is in China and continues to negotiate for his return".

On the notion that China might be protecting Low, the author said that, given the financier's involvement in drawing up plans for "corrupt Belt and Road infrastructure projects in Malaysia", officials in Beijing might not want him to return home to lay out the details of those dealings.

Some of the most intriguing speculation over Low's whereabouts come from police chief Abdul Hamid.

Last month, he claimed that, while he was aware of Low's hiding place, the authorities in the country were being uncooperative and offering ludicrous excuses for their inability to pin down the elusive businessman.

"Among the excuses they gave [was that] Jho Low apparently changed his looks by undergoing facial surgery to look like a bear," the police chief told local media.

"Sometimes when he walks, he looks like a [bull]. So when we look at him from behind, that is how he looks. Do you think this excuse [given by the authorities of the country Jho Low is hiding in] is logical?" he said.

While the scandal itself is no laughing matter - international experts agree with Mahathir's assessment that the losses may have crashed the local economy - citizens have shown a sense of humour in responding to it.

Last Christmas, Jho Low-themed festive merchandise made by local lifestyle and gift shop APOM (A Piece of Malaysia) Store flew off the shelves.

Among the top-selling items were mugs, T-shirts, activity books and drinks coasters featuring a character resembling Low in a Santa hat emblazoned with slogans such as "Spend it like you stole it" and "Jho Jho Jho! Tis the season of giving … back".

On social media, Malaysians have begged local comedian and Jho Low doppelgänger Jason Leong to audition for the role of Low in a movie adaptation of Billion Dollar Whale.

SK Global, the company behind Crazy Rich Asians, has signed a pact with Wright and Hope for the film adaptation of their book. Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysian actress who starred in Crazy Rich Asians, is slated to produce the film.

The film's makers have not announced a release date as yet, nor confirmed the more important matter of who will be cast as the billion-dollar whale. 

This article was first published in South China Morning Post