Fugitive Penang financier Jho Low, the alleged ringleader of the multibillion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal, is believed to be hiding in Macau, Malaysia’s anti-graft agency confirmed yesterday.
In a written response to questions from Al Jazeera, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) said that it “believes the individuals wanted for the 1MDB case, especially Jho Low, are hiding in Macau.” It said that this was “confirmed by several individuals who have seen Jho Low in Macau.”
Low – full name Low Taek Jho – has been charged in Malaysia and the United States for coordinating the pillaging of the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope have described as one of “the greatest financial heists in history.” U.S. and Malaysian investigators have estimated that around $4.5 billion was sucked out of 1MDB between 2009 and 2014 by high-level officials of the fund and their associates. Malaysian authorities claim that at least $4.3 billion more is unaccounted for.
The 1MDB case has prompted an ever-ramifying investigation and a host of legal cases that continue to work their way through the Malaysian court system. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who set up the 1MDB fund in 2009 shortly after coming to office, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his illegal receipt of 42 million ringgit from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. He is also facing numerous other charges related to the misappropriation of 1MDB funds.
Still extravagantly at large, however, is Low, who has denied any involvement in the 1MDB scandal. For several years now, it has been rumored that Low is hiding in China, an allegation that the Malaysian authorities have made public more recently.
Low’s presence has been known for some time. In 2020, Al Jazeera reported that he “was being protected by a prominent Macau businessman, who was also a high-ranking Chinese official, living in his villa in the enclave’s most exclusive residential area, Penha Hill.” As one would expect, Beijing denies that it is harboring the fugitive.
According to the Al Jazeera report published yesterday, the MACC’s comments about Low’s whereabouts came a few weeks after the arrest of Kee Kok Thiam, a Malaysian associate of Low and fellow suspect in the 1MDB case, who it said was deported from Macau for overstaying his visa. Kee was reportedly delivered to Malaysian custody on the morning of May 3.
After an interview with MACC officers, during which it is assumed that he divulged Low’s whereabouts, the anti-corruption body said no charges had been laid against Kee “at this time.” The MACC also told Al Jazeera that Kee confirmed to investigators that he met Jho Low and a number of other 1MDB fugitives in Macau and that Jho Low instructed him “not to return to Malaysia as a witness in the 1MDB case.” In a bizarre turn of events that has unsurprisingly prompted widespread speculation, the 56-year-old Kee died in hospital on Monday from a sudden massive stroke, his family reported yesterday.
Whether Kee was about to turn state’s witness, and what he would have been able to divulge if he had done so, remains, therefore, an open question. In any event, Low’s return to Malaysia is unlikely to happen any time soon, if at all. Such a turn of events would presumably require the cooperation and support of the Chinese government, and, as the former Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius told Al Jazeera, Low knows where a lot of the bodies are buried in terms of China’s engagement with the graft-tainted Najib administration.
For instance, as the Wall Street Journal reported in early 2019, Chinese officials purposefully inflated the price of a number of China-backed infrastructure projects, including the East Coast Rail Link and Trans-Sabah gas pipeline, so that the excess funds would repay 1MDB’s debts. According to the Journal’s reporting, Chinese officials also told their Malaysian counterparts that Beijing would use its influence to try to get the United States and other countries to drop their investigations into 1MDB, and attempted to leverage its support into allowing Chinese warships to dock at Malaysian ports.
As Ignatius told Al Jazeera, “It’s not in China’s best interest to release Jho Low. He knows too much. He was party to every shady deal with China during Najib’s time and China wants that forgotten. It doesn’t want it dredged up again, especially as competition between China and the United States heats up.”
The only certainty is that Malaysia’s greatest financial scandal will take many more years to fully unpick.