BANGKOK — Malaysia’s Finance Minister has requested the country’s Inland Revenue Board to start an investigation into Low Taek Jho, the billionaire who once gifted model Miranda Kerr with $8 million worth of jewelry, and his connection to a controversial sovereign wealth fund.
“The Inland Revenue Board was asked to investigate Jho Low and his family in connection with any returns or anything received in the 1MDB scandal,” Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng tweeted out in the early hours of Friday morning.
Low, better known as Jho Low, is the latest target in regards to the sovereign wealth fund — known as 1MDB — founded in 2009 by former Prime Minister Najib Razak. While the fund was initially created to promote economic development, it has instead been plagued with controversy as an alleged $4.5 billion has gone missing from it. Allegations of corruption drew swift criticism, which was quickly subdued under the previous government.
But now, a little over two weeks after a stunning election victory by Mahathir Mohamad — who campaigned extensively on the promise that he will return the billions stolen from 1MDB — the tide has turned for Low, who was allegedly the financier helping Najib set up the wealth fund. (Low has consistently denied all wrongdoing, and his whereabouts are unknown.)
The U.S. Department of Justice found that much of the missing $4.5 billion was diverted to shell companies connected to the embattled financier, and had issued civil lawsuits in a bid to seize the assets. These included gifts provided to Low’s celebrity friends, who promptly handed them over to the U.S. government: Model Miranda Kerr returned jewelry worth $8.1 million, including an 11.72-carat heart-shaped diamond engraved with her initials, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio handed over a $3.2 million Pablo Picasso painting, a $9 million Jean-Michel Basquiat collage and an Oscar statue won by Marlon Brando.
Meanwhile, Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have not fared better since his election loss. Last Thursday, the police raided three of his family’s residences. At the Pavillion residence, they seized hundreds of orange boxes containing Hermès Birkin bags, reportedly enough to fill five trucks. At another residence, the Singapore Straits Times reported that the raid yielded more than 50 Chanel, Gucci and Prada handbags, as well as 10 luxury watches, including Rolexes and Patek Philippes.
Malaysian police declined to comment on the total value. “At this moment, we cannot reveal the information to media because we are still counting the items that we seized,” said an officer from the commercial crime investigations department earlier this week, declining to say if the value was more than what has been stated in local reports.
That same day, Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga sent a letter congratulating Mahathir on his victory, and requested reopening the investigation into the case involving the gruesome murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman who was allegedly connected to Najib and a close associate of his. Mystery has always shrouded the death of the 28-year-old mother of two, and Najib has consistently denied ever meeting her.
Nathaniel Tan, a Malaysian political columnist, said Mahathir’s May 9 election win ensures that any protection afforded to Najib and his associates is now gone, whether if it is concerning 1MDB-related corruption or the unsolved murder of a young woman who many believed was a model.
“There was pretty much no chance whatsoever of a thorough and transparent investigation of that case, given the circumstances,” Tan said. “I believe the general perception is that under the previous regime, the truth would never officially come out.”
He remains optimistic about these developments, though he believes the focus will remain on 1MDB-related crimes, and in trying to get the billions back. Public outrage over Mansor’s Birkin handbag collection has only fueled the existing belief that she and Najib were out of touch with the everyday lives of Malaysians.
“That level of luxury will outrage most ordinary Malaysians, most of whom will never be able to afford one of those items, let alone the entire stash,” he said, adding that the country’s standard of living remains relatively low.
A Hermes Birkin bag is valued between $12,000 and $300,000. The average monthly salary of residents in Kuala Lumpur is roughly $1,000, while the capital ranked second to last out of 47 major cities in terms of quality of living in 2016 by the Deutsche Bank.
“These are also seen alongside government policies that have been perceived to put additional financial burdens on most ordinary, working class Malaysians — especially the [Goods and Services Tax] which was introduced under Najib, and the reduction or removal of fuel subsidies,” said Tan.
For Najib’s part, he was questioned for two days this week by the Anti-Corruption Commission regarding the suspicious transfers out of the 1MDB fund. The former prime minister has previously denied all wrongdoing.