Commentary: Jho Low wishes Malaysia will forget about 1MDB and move on
An arrest of Jho Low would catapult 1MDB into public consciousness. But until that happens, the man and the issues around him are likely to fade away, says Professor James Chin.
HOBART: The one factor that could influence the course of the next Malaysian General Election is Jho Low - with one condition.
Four years ago, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional coalition lost power for the first time largely because of the 1MDB scam that cast such a large shadow on UMNO. It was impossible for UMNO under Najib Razak to survive the 14th General Election (GE14).
Four years and three changes of government later, the person that everyone says is the mastermind, Jho Low, is still missing despite a worldwide hunt. How is this possible?
LITTLE PROGRESS ON 1MDB
Malaysian authorities have yet to close the file on 1MDB.
Malaysian police are looking into former Bank Negara governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz and former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nor Mohamed Yakcop for ties to 1MDB funds. Billions have also been recovered yet these are only sufficient to pay the debt principal of 1MDB bonds for 2022, the Finance Ministry said in January.
But the 1MDB file cannot be closed permanently until Jho Low, the person in the eye of this storm, appears in court to tell us what actually happened.
Yet he’s resisting that. Lawyers representing Jho Low filed a statement of defence at the Kuala Lumpur High Court last week, maintaining that he cannot be held liable for anything to do with 1MDB since he did not hold any official positions in 1MDB or its subsidiaries.
They were responding to a civil suit filed by 1MDB against Jho Low and his associates for US$3.78 billion last May. Yet if he’s innocent, why not appear in court and clear his name?
Many people in Malaysia are under the impression that 1MDB issue is settled in the United States but this could not be further from the truth.
In fact, the trail of Roger Ng, the former managing director for Goldman Sachs accused of conspiring with Jho Low and others to embezzle at least US$2.7 billion from 1MDB, only started on Monday (Feb 7).
On top of this, last June, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) laid new charges against Jho Low, alleging that he was involved in a back-channel lobbying campaign to influence Donald Trump’s administration and public prosecutors to drop the 1MDB investigation and, possibly unrelatedly, deport a Chinese dissident from the US back to China.
The only thing that appears to be settled is a mini-series based on Jho Low’s exploits documented in the bestseller Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World that will start production this year. Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most prominent export to Hollywood, will star in the mini-series.
WHERE IS JHO LOW?
This raises the simple question: Where is Jho Low and how is he still free after four years of a global manhunt, one that involves even US authorities?
The short answer is that he still has access to vast amount of money and may be potentially protected in China where he is known to have high level contacts.
At one point, he was confirmed to be living in Macau. In the US DOJ's report last year, he was charged for conspiring to engage in undisclosed lobbying campaigns with a Chinese vice minister of public security.
Now, Jho Low may be hoping that with the passage of time, the political will in Malaysia to go after him will disappear and he will be forgotten. This may not be wishful thinking.
Not a single person was charged in Malaysian courts for the Bank Bumiputera scandal in Malaysia, which paid US$1 billion between 1979 and 1983 in bad debts to property speculators including the Carrian Group.
The scandal shared similarities with 1MDB as it dealt with huge loans given out by a subsidiary of Bank Bumiputera to a Malaysian businessman based in Hong Kong. The money was never recovered.
This scandal nearly caused the collapse of the Malaysian banking system. Yet today it has largely been forgotten.
WHY JHO LOW HAS BECOME LESS OF A HOT-BUTTON ISSUE IN MALAYSIA
The conventional wisdom is that as long as Jho Low remains still missing when the next general election, GE15, is held, the opposition will find it extremely difficult to use 1MDB again as an issue against UMNO.
Malaysians have short memories, and most people think the pandemic for the past two years have occupied mindshare in the realm of Malaysian politics.
Jho Low is fading from the collective consciousness of the average Malaysian voter when bread-and-butter issues today are likely to be more important than Jho Low.
This has also been enabled in part because Najib, who's also implicated in the 1MDB scandal, has completely repackaged himself as “Bossku” since 2018. He’s managed to remain a key political player in UMNO.
The Johor state elections will be held next month. If UMNO does well, many political observers expect GE15 to be held in the second half of this year rather than for UMNO to wait for the current government’s five-year term limit to expire.
Right now UMNO has to share power with Bersatu at the federal level but the relationship is tense. Bersatu is an offshoot of UMNO and is openly going after the same Malay voters who traditionally vote for UMNO.
The Johor polls have already opened an uncomfortable public spat between Najib and Bersatu chief Muhyiddin Yassin, a man who used to be Najib’s deputy prime minister and whom Najib fired years back for supposedly undermining him and persistently raising 1MDB.
Listen to Malaysia observers break down the political twists and turns in the country prior to Ismail Sabri becoming prime minister on CNA's Heart of the Matter:
NAJIB AND JHO LOW’S FATES ARE TIED
But if Jho Low is arrested, then the scenario changes completely. The immense media spotlight on any expected arrest will mean that UMNO, and Najib Razak in particular, will be on the hook for 1MDB and 1MDB will likely be the number one issue again in Malaysia.
Still, nobody seriously thinks Jho Low can be arrested for the foreseeable future since he has managed to remain hidden for so long.
The big irony here is that we live in a social media age where supposedly nothing is forgotten as social media recycles scandals constantly.
Yet in this case, while 1MDB is still news in the financial section, it does not really attract attention among the general public. The pace of social media is such that for most young people, 1MDB is “history” belonging to another era.
Malaysian politics today is all about the outrage generated in the past 48 hours. Unless there is something new that feeds the news cycle, people will simply move on to the next outrage.
So Jho Low will not be an important factor in GE15 in Malaysia unless he gets arrested. As time passes, he will likely be forgotten or remembered as one of the greatest magicians ever to come out of Malaysia.
James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.