Commentary: Jho Low’s fantastic Houdini disappearing act
Jho Low may be a simple Penang boy who thirsts for greater things. Malaysia is just too small for him, says James Chin.
HOBART: Since Wednesday (Oct 30), Malaysians have been talking non-stop about a US$700 million settlement.
The US Justice Department struck a deal with financier Jho Low. He would give up more than US$700 million in additional assets tied to the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal, which led directly to the fall of the Najib Razak's administration in last year’s historic general elections.
Low, from Penang, is a central figure in the global scandal, which saw billions of dollars go missing from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. Assets in the settlement include high-end real estate, a luxury hotel, mansions, jewellery and art works.
THE BIG REVEAL
For ordinary Malaysians, the big surprise was that the forfeiture arrangement did not presume guilt or wrongdoing. In other words, Low is still clean as a whistle.
On the other hand, the agreement doesn’t release Low from other criminal charges slapped on him in the US, including money-laundering and corruption.
What is even more surprising are the people representing Low in getting this settlement. Big names include reputable Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and head of US President Donald Trump’s transition team, and Kobre and Kim, a leading New York law firm.
Many Malaysians also cannot understand how the settlement allows part of the proceeds to pay Low’s lawyers.
In the eyes of ordinary Malaysians, Jho Low has done another “Houdini” act.
He does not have to admit wrongdoing, he simply gives up some assets, perhaps for more lenient sentences if he’s ever convicted, and even his legal fees will be borne by that settlement.
Low’s immediate statement, released by a public relations firm, said in no uncertain words that he was “very pleased” with the “landmark comprehensive, global settlement” and emphasised that “importantly, the agreement does not constitute an admission of guilt, liability or any form of wrongdoing by me".
Malaysians are already angry that despite tossing Najib and the Barisan Nasional (BN) out of government on a clear pre-election promise by Mahathir Mohamad that all those involved in the 1MDB scam “will go to jail”, little has happened.
Najib’s trial is currently underway but it is clear that no verdict will be forthcoming this year. The other high-profile figure charged, Rosmah Mansor, who is Najib’s wife, has just seen trial begun and is proceeding slower than a snail.
But the central man lurking in the shadows Jho Low is still free.
There are many reports of him moving freely in China, Macau, Thailand and the Middle East. The new Mahathir administration cannot give a convincing answer on why he cannot be found. They have repeated the standard holding line: “The police are looking for him."
There are even people in Kuala Lumpur who believe that Jho Low “knows too many secrets” and thus cannot be touched, at least for now.
The longer Jho Low is out there, the less credibility the not-so-new Pakatan Harapan government has when they claim to be cleaning up the mess left by Najib and BN.
If they cannot catch Low in person, it will simply reinforce the belief that powerful people cannot afford to have Low spilling the beans on the true inside story of 1MDB.
In September, Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said the police know the whereabouts of Low and aim to bring him back by end of the year.
THE SPIDER WEB
One often forgets that 1MDB scandal was not entirely a “Malaysian show”. There were important players who have found themselves thrust into the limelight.
Top of the list are certain personalities in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah had to clarify the Saudi Arabian government’s reaffirmation that it has nothing to do with a RM2.6 billion donation to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The Malaysian High Court was told this week that 1MDB had been in a joint venture with Petro-Saudi, and its CEO received a cool US$85 million as “commission”.
The other major player caught up in this web is Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs. The Malaysian government is trying to recover US$3.3 billion from Goldman.
Malaysia has filed criminal charges against Goldman for its role as underwriter for bond sales that raised billions for 1MDB. Both sides are looking at an out-of-court settlement.
In addition to the political consequences of not being able to find Jho Low, the longer the man stays hidden away from public scrutiny, the bigger the myth about him grows.
Thus far, three books, including the best-seller Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, and two documentaries (The Kleptocrats and BBC's The PM, the Playboy and the Wolf of Wall Street) have appeared in the past 12 months devoted largely to the figure of Jho Low.
He is slowly becoming part of Malaysian popular culture. One might say his “success” reflects the spirit of Malaysian saying “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysians Can Do It!) although his modus operandi is questionable.
Perversely, Low has come to be admired for his ability of having allegedly pulled off one of the biggest financial heists in history while remaining at large, being the catalyst for the first regime change in Malaysia, and of course, like the fictional super fugitive Carmen Sandiego, always staying one step ahead of authorities hot on his trail.
THE HUGE IRONY
The irony is also not lost on many Malaysians that Jho Low is the main financier to the Hollywood hit The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie about a real-life, high-powered scammer Jordan Belfort.
Belfort partied hard and lived a life of excess. Low’s party record is probably equal or better than Belfort's. Was Low simply financing a movie that reflects his alter ego?
No matter what happens next, many Malaysians are resigned to the fact that Jho Low is no ordinary Malaysian and may never have to answer or reveal the true story of what happened with 1MDB.
There is some basis to this belief. Many previous large financial scandals in Malaysia were never fully accounted for.
For example, Lorrian Osman, the banker in the thick of the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance scandal, died in London and took many secrets surrounding the scandal, including a murder of an auditor sent to Hong Kong to investigate bad loans, to the grave.
The other multi-billion scandal in Malaysia, the forex losses incurred by Bank Negara Malaysia (Malaysia’s central bank, BNM) were never fully explained even by a 2017 royal commission of inquiry.
The main actor who could have told the truth, BNM governor Jaffar Hussein, died in 1998. Again, like Lorrain Osman, he took his secrets to his grave.
No one was ever held accountable for Bank Bumiputera and the BNM Forex scandals.
It may be at the end of the day that Jho Low is simply a Penang boy who thirsts for greater things. Malaysia is just too small for him.
Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.