TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The seizure of the luxury yacht Equanimity at Benoa Harbor, Bali, is a slap in the face for the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Thought to have been bought from the proceeds of embezzlement from the government investment institution 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the yacht was seized by Indonesian police acting on a request from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The 1MDB saga began with the establishment of the Terengganu Investment Authority, a financial institution of Malaysia’s Terengganu State, in January 2009. Less than a year later, Prime Minister Najib Razak took control of the institution and positioned it under the central government with Najib as chair of the advisory board. At the time, 1MDB was involved in many major investments, including infrastructure construction and the energy sector.
1MDB, which funded these projects from selling bonds, began to come under the spotlight in the last few years, especially after it was reported to have defaulted on payments of interest to banks and holders of bonds. There were indications of 1MDB funds passing to cronies of Najib through shell companies overseas. This corruption eventually spread beyond Malaysia to become a global issue.
The US Department of Justice uncovered suspected embezzlement to the tune of US$3.5 billion, or around Rp48 trillion, from 1MDB. In addition to Najib and his associates, the scandal dragged in big names, such as Australian model Miranda Kerr and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Apart from the US, at least nine nations also began investigating the 1MDB case.
The Equanimity is thought to have been bought to launder money from the scandal. According to a US court, the vessel, which is registered in the Cayman Islands, was bought by Malaysian tycoon Jho Low. Other assets Low is alleged to have purchased with 1MDB funds include private jets, hotels, real estate in New York and shares in EMI music. Low is said to be Prime Minister Najib’s business adviser and to have close links with several Malaysian ministers.
Indonesia deserves a thumbs up for its involvement in the 1MDB investigation. Corruption is now a cross-border crime that is no longer confined to individual nations. The global media investigation into the Panama Papers scandal is a clear example of how illegal funds can be concealed in previously unconsidered locations using devious methods. In the case of the Panama Papers, about 11,5 million documents concerning companies that were laundering money have been leaked from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. This data was subsequently exposed by the media worldwide.
It is time for Indonesia to become more involved in investigations into international money laundering. Having ratified the United Nations convention on corruption, Indonesia’s involvement would prove our commitment to fighting the practice of concealing dirty money. Such involvement would have a positive impact on Indonesia.
Remember that more than a few Indonesians have stashed ill-gotten gains from domestic corruption overseas. The Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance corruption case is one example of our dependence on international authorities if we want to trace the flow of funds from this massive corruption case. The Indonesian government should take the initiative to develop cooperation with international law enforcement agencies to make it easier to eradicate cross-border corruption and money laundering.
The passive stance of Najib’s government to the seizure of the Equanimity has naturally led to suspicions. Since his initial denial of involvement in the 1MDB scandal, Najib should have issued a clear response to the charges by the US court related to the evidence of money laundering, including the problematic yacht. Demands for an active and open response have also come from the opposition-including from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, but none has been forthcoming. No matter how much damage is done to his government by the 1MDB scandal, Najib has survived.
The opposition’s hope that the 1MDB scandal will come out into the open in Malaysia seems optimistic. Without transparency and a process of checks and balances, it is difficult to exercise control over the government. It is here that the revelations of money laundering become relevant. Under investigation by many countries, 1MDB should become a cross-border project.
Read the full article in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine