As Najib Razak, Malaysia’s former prime minister, sits in his jail cell awaiting questions over the embezzlement of $4.5bn he might reflect on the Wolf of Wall Street. The Hollywood tale of wild excess and fraud was the catalyst that brought down his administration. His family even produced the film.
“I had a tip off that the producer was Najib’s son,” says Clare Rewcastle Brown, a journalist whose investigation helped to topple the Malaysian government. “This person with no background in the film industry and no legitimate source of income put $100m into a movie. It was all rather intriguing.”
The thread Brown started pulling led to a story of rampant corruption that could do with its own Hollywood treatment. The characters included a Chinese financier dubbed the pudgy playboy. A bouffant haired prime minister’s wife with a Hermes bag obsession. Bit-parts from Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Private detectives impersonating police officers, and the heroine of the story who happens to be Gordon Brown’s sister in law.
“I grew up as this rather lonely European kid living in the east Malaysian jungle,” Brown says of her childhood on the island of Borneo. “This fabulous paradise was being obliterated and turned into palm oil plantations. I soon realised the state rulers were being protected by the federal government who relied on these rotten boroughs to deliver their vote.”
After stints at ITN and BBC, Brown resolved to uncover this story and soon her blog, the Sarawak Report, moved on from documenting the local kleptocracy to those even higher up the chain. “Everyone was gossiping about this so-called slush fund called 1MDB, but nobody had any proof.”
The 1MDB scandal as it came to be known, saw the Malaysian government underwrite bonds to develop the country’s poorest areas. The fund soon became a by-word for mismanagement and was eventually declared insolvent. Brown’s scoop was discovering that much of the missing money appeared to have flowed directly from 1MDB towards the family of Malaysia’s former prime minister, as the charges against him now allege. Najib has denied all wrongdoing.
From 2014 onwards, the Sarawak Report had a steady stream of revelations detailing how a series of fake loans were used to cover up the embezzlement and showing how the alleged beneficiaries went on a buying spree (five vans were needed to take the suspect belongings out of one Najib’s former residences).
However, $4.5bn buys a lot of expensive lawyers and Brown ploughed a lowly furrow trying to persuade the international media to take up the story. “In the end I got a major newspaper in South East Asia to buy a whistleblower’s account for a ludicrous bunch of money,” she says. “Off I toddled, published the story, which the newspaper didn’t dare do in the end and then of course I was unleashed into a rollercoaster of denial and backlash.”
Brown’s roller-coaster ride was pretty terrifying. She was long since persona non grata in Malaysia; Najib tried to have an Interpol Red Notice issued for the reporter. This tactic is normally reserved for terrorists and international criminals which can see them arrested and extradited if they try and cross a border.
Brown still snuck into the country on occasion to meet the veteran Malaysian opposition leader, Mahathir Mohamad, using her contacts to lift the restrictions against her and disappearing when her movements started being tracked by Malaysian police. Those who had to stay in Malaysia were less fortunate.
“One of my sources was the prosecutor who had drawn up the charges against 1MDB (Malaysian official Kevin Morais). He was snatched from his car in moving traffic, chopped into pieces and was found later in an oil drum.”
Even in the UK, Brown found herself being followed by private detectives, worrying her family so much they insisted she go to the police. “The first comment I got from them was – well you’re a journalist isn’t that what you signed up for love? And then the next day they found out I had these slightly awkward family connections.” Brown was hardly keen to tell them but it certainly made the Met sit up and take notice. “My brother in law comes to stay with us quite a bit in London so that was quite helpful.”
What also proved quite helpful was the United States’ insistence that any transaction denominated in US dollars can be investigated by the department of justice. While British investigators had little interest in a fraud in far off Malayisa, US officials were much more aggressive.
Alerted by Brown, the FBI’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative identified billions missing from 1MDB allowing them to sequester $1bn from the fund. “It felt a bit like being Winston Churchill in World War II,” Brown says of the sudden arrival of the cavalry in the shape of US officialdom.
In May, Najib’s Barisan Nasional party fell from power after over 60 years in government, thanks to the scandal surrounding 1MDB. In a role reversal, the formerly imprisoned opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, now leads the victorious coalition in parliament while his tormentor sits in jail.
Last month he travelled to the UK to thank Jeremy Corbyn for sponsoring an Early Day Motion opposing his imprisonment, diplomatically suggesting the UK could have done more to distance themselves from Najib’s corrupt regime.
While the new Malaysian government contains a lot of the same faces, Brown is optimistic this will be a turning point for a country which was drifting towards China. “The people I spoke to who were worried they would be killed for talking to me are now all ministers in the government,” she says shortly before jumping on a flight to Kuala Lumpur. “This is a major, major breakthrough. You have democracy actually working, the return of the rule of law, in an area of the world which was really tipping into the night”.
This article was amended on 4 July 2018 to make it clear the opposition leader Brown visited was Mahathir Mohamad.