Saturday, 21 July 2018

Another page of Malaysian pulp fiction

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  • Jonathan Rogers
The Malaysian PM’s first US official visit comes at a delicate time in the 1MDB and North Korea controversies, says Jonathan Rogers

The latest iteration in the drawn-out epic of alleged financial malfeasance at Malaysia’s 1MDB seems straight out of a pulp fiction potboiler. That comes as no surprise, given what has come before, but it is a chilling example of a mindset of fear which has come to grip the citizens of that country.

I’m referring to a court filing made last week in a Los Angeles court by the FBI, which seeks anonymity for its informants in the 1MDB case on the basis that they fear reprisals should it emerge that they have testified in connection with the case to the US authorities.

Special agent Robert Heuchling stated that these individuals were afraid that they might “place the safety and security of both themselves and their families at serious risk” should it emerge that they had provided evidence to a Department of Justice criminal case in connection with more than US$1bn said to have been siphoned from 1MDB.

Heuchling referred to the August 30 shooting in broad daylight on a Kuala Lumpur street of the chauffeur of Malaysia’s former attorney general Abdul Gani Patail as a possible warning to those who might testify in the 1MDB case to US investigators.

You might imagine the agent’s statement read in the cynical, matter-of-fact tones of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe (even though Marlowe never got to investigate a case involving the alleged embezzlement of a sum estimated at close to US$6bn, even taking inflation into account).

It might just be that the paranoia simmering in Malaysia has reached fever pitch and that the shooting was simply an event disconnected from the government-owned investment agency. Or it might mean that the latest act in the 1MDB drama is about fear and desperation.

After all, the DoJ last month put on hold its civil action against US assets said to have been looted from 1MDB – a now infamous US$1.7bn roster of items ranging from Beverly Hills mansions and Picasso paintings to a super-yacht – to avoid hampering an ongoing criminal investigation.

And that means the seemingly inevitable issuance of international arrest warrants against the alleged perpetrators of the scam, some of whom have been named in the DoJ civil case, some perhaps who have not.

The arrest of these individuals or their becoming fugitives is only a matter of time, unless the criminal case is dropped. It might not be that a shooting in broad daylight in KL signals that the saga has entered its endgame phase, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it has.

MEANWHILE WE HAVE the prospect of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visiting Washington this week on an official visit – his first to the US in his decade in power.

We can only watch as that visit pans out, but it seems unlikely that Najib will be able to escape a grilling over 1MDB at press conferences with President Trump, unless the latter declares a moratorium on the issue – something which is not entirely far-fetched.

But if the pending visit is indeed the PR triumph which Najib is likely to be hoping for, it comes at an awkward time with regard to a matter of foreign policy which dwarfs the goings on at 1MDB: North Korea.

After a week during which Trump threatened sanctions against any country which traded with North Korea, it is apposite that Malaysia is one of the few countries to have maintained friendly relations with Pyongyang in the past, with embassies in each respective capital and even visa-free access for tourists. Reuters reported in February about a Malaysia-based company called Glocom which was described in a UN report as a front for North Korea.

Relations have deteriorated since the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur airport earlier this year. Still, amid the current hysteria surrounding trade sanctions, this week’s trip carries a somewhat exquisite aura of embarrassment – even leaving aside 1MDB.

Of course from Trump’s viewpoint it could all simply add up to another photo opportunity on one of his golf courses. But at a time when Malaysia increasingly looks to China for infrastructure investment, and indeed in the eyes of many observers is cast as the latter’s client, it will be interesting to see quite whether Najib can straddle the demands of the big power to the East and that to the West.

In the meantime, those with little skin in the game can sit back and enjoy the latest episode of a piece of pulp fiction brought to life.




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