Magazine | Politics | Southeast Asia

Najib Razak and the Neverending 1MDB Scandal

“You can bend the rules of political physics in Malaysia, not forever but for awhile.”

By Kean Wong for
Najib Razak and the Neverending 1MDB Scandal
Credit: Olivia Harris, Reuters

In the heatwave before another bout of regional smog from forest fires, many Malaysian conversations this year have been especially subdued and resigned in tenor, only briefly lifted by a thrilling Olympic summer that was half a world away in Rio de Janeiro.

The seemingly endless saga of billions of public money gone missing, linked to a state development fund controlled by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, was sidelined by Malaysians celebrating the nation’s best Olympics showing ever, with five medals and thrilling badminton matches that enthralled otherwise bitter political rivals.

But the Southeast Asian nation crashed back to reality soon after Rio’s closing ceremonies. Two key protagonists, in what some civil society leaders are calling a “national tragedy” of Olympian proportions, were summoned to a U.S. court on August 22. Prime Minister Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz and young Malaysian tycoon Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, have been named as defendants in a civil lawsuit first announced by the United States’ Department of Justice (DOJ) a month earlier on July 20.

The DOJ civil action seeks the largest forfeiture in U.S. history, seizing $1 billion in assets tied to the state fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) overseen by the Malaysian prime minister.