What is 1MDB?

CNN's Richard Quest breaks down the 1MDB scandal that has seen Malaysia's former Prime Minister arrested and Goldman Sachs facing criminal charges.

Posted: Dec 18, 2018 8:09 PM
Updated: Dec 18, 2018 8:09 PM

Forget Santa. In Malaysia, there's another portly figure of fun decorating homes this Christmas.

Jho Low, the movie financier and international playboy suspected of being a key player in a scheme to launder billions of dollars from Malaysia's state investment fund, has become the unlikely face of a range of novelty items poking fun at his alleged misdeeds.

Adorned with cheeky phrases like "Spending like I stole it" and "Tis the season to be Jholly", the items highlight how the 37-year-old's home country is developing a wry humor towards Low and his alleged crimes.

The exact location of Low, whose full name is Low Taek Jho, remains unknown. He is still wanted for questioning over the multi-billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

As part of that investigation, US and Malaysian authorities allege he used ill-gotten gains to fund a lavish lifestyle involving luxury real estate, private planes, a $250 million yacht, and parties with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton and Miranda Kerr, on whom he lavished millions of dollars worth of jewelery -- since surrendered to the US Department of Justice.

The state-owned fund was founded by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 to invest in property, infrastructure and energy projects.

Kelvin Long, co-founder of A Piece of Malaysia, the Kuala Lumpur store behind the Jholly Christmas collection, told CNN that while many Malaysians ultimately want to see Low face justice, they are prepared to embrace the lighter side in the meantime.

"We want to bring (Low) back (to Malaysia)," Long said. "(We're) trying to create a bit more humor into the situation. There are a lot of mad people ... let's make a mockery out of it."

He added that the Low products were outselling all the store's other Christmas items.

Low lives the high life

Low, a friend of Najib's son-in-law, is accused of using shell companies to funnel assets out of 1MDB for his own personal enrichment. He allegedly embarked on an almost decade-long splurge involving the purchase of more than a billion dollars' worth of luxury items, according to US Justice Department filings.

One FBI report alleges that between October 2009 and June 2010 alone, more than $85 million was spent in Las Vegas casinos as well as "luxury yacht rental companies, business jet rental vendors (and on) a London interior decorator."

Low, who held no formal position at 1MDB, maintains his innocence. According to a statement on his website, he "believes he will be vindicated once all the relevant evidence has been presented in a fair and legitimate court of law."

The US Justice Department previously filed civil asset forfeiture suits to reclaim goods it said were bought with money stolen from the 1MDB fund. Officials have claimed that laundered funds were pumped into New York condos, hotels, yachts and a jet -- and used to finance Hollywood films such as "The Wolf of Wall Street."

The agency alleges that $4.5 billion from 1MDB was misappropriated by high-level officials at the fund.

Najib, who was deposed after a shock election result in May for 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, has since been charged with money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power. He denies the charges.

Living large

Tom Wright, co-author of "Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World," an investigation into Low, said he was an "extraordinary" character.

"He's somewhat of a mysterious figure ... how he was able to transform himself into this powerful figure in Malaysia, and the fact that he has this other life in the West, captured the imagination of Malaysians," he said.

"On one level people are angry about the money that's been stolen and the lost revenue from Malaysia -- at the same time (they are) fascinated by him, how he thrived in the west among Hollywood celebrities, bankers. Some Malaysians even say he's amazing rather than someone to revile."

When "Billion Dollar Whale" was first published in September, Long said the book "got the whole country riled up a bit, venting on social media."

But as the countdown to Christmas began, he felt he was willing to take a risk and create the Low merchandise to showcase "the lighter side of Malaysian culture."

The collection's popularity was also testament to how Malaysia has changed in the months since Mahathir took power, Long said.

"If we ran this with the previous government in power, we'd be in so much trouble," he said. "With the new government people are seeing what is permissible, they're testing new grounds. There's a sense of relief for Malaysians, sense of being free after having strict rules (imposed upon us)."

Wright, the journalist, agreed that Malaysian attitudes are shifting.

"Mahathir is certainly going to face challenges clearing up corruption -- it's wider than Najib and Jho Low (and) it won't change overnight," he said. "But this big corruption scandal is now out in the open and that's good for Malaysia and good for (the rule of) law."

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