Fugitive Malaysian Billionaire Jho Low ‘Tried to Bargain’ for Freedom

A damning investigation revealed leaked phone calls from Low.
Heather Chen
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
November 17, 2020, 9:32am
Jho Low
Jho Low (R) seen with singer Alicia Keys andCHRISTOPHER POLK / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

A damning new investigation by Al-Jazeera revealed the extraordinary lengths that fugitive Malaysian billionaire Jho Low was willing to go through in order to escape prison, betraying fellow conspirators and pinning the blame on others like former ally Najib Razak

For the first time, Low, seen by critics and international observers as being the true mastermind behind Malaysia’s 1MDB financial corruption scandal, was heard in a series of phone recordings from 2018, desperately trying to bargain for his freedom by exchanging information with officials from then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s new government.

“I don’t believe there’s been any wrongdoing,” Low is heard saying, before going on to suggest that he merely “borrowed” billions of dollars from the ill-fated sovereign state fund to buy an assortment of luxury assets that included prime real estate around the world, art masterpieces, a private jet and a $250 million luxury super yacht The Equanimity.

Low continued to assert his innocence, claiming that the billions siphoned from 1MDB were just “loans”.

“All these were ultimately loans, directly or indirectly,” he said. “But I think that the time has come. We want to assist in repatriating these assets back in return for cooperating and moving on with life without, you know, being prosecuted,” Low said. 

Often considered to be one of the world’s greatest financial heists, the 1MDB scandal saw billions of dollars stolen from the people of Malaysia. The sovereign wealth fund was set up to promote economic development in the Southeast Asian country. But suspicions arose over the fund’s lack of transparency and controversial large-scale transactions that numbered into the billions. It soon exploded into a global investigation involving at least six countries including Singapore and Switzerland, seeping into the country’s politics before spiralling into widespread public anger which eventually led to ex-leader Najib’s spectacular political downfall in 2018.

Low has always denied the allegations. His lawyers did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the documentary.

The multimedia investigation, conducted by Australian journalist Mary Ann Jolley and published on Nov. 16, drew a huge reaction among many Malaysians on social media. Low’s name began trending on Twitter, redirecting public resentment towards blatant political corruption that was allowed to take place in the country for many years.

“Jho Low’s responses showed no remorse at all,” said Malaysia expert and political analyst Bridget Welsh about the leaked conversations. “In this sense, he takes after the key decision-maker he threw under the bus in his interviews, Najib Razak. The sense of entitlement and hubris he displays is overpowered only by the billions of money taken from the people of Malaysia.” 

July saw the long-awaited official verdict, in the first of several trials, for Najib, who was found guilty of multiple charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering. The landmark ruling was highest-ever profile corruption case in Malaysia’s history to involve a prime minister.

Just as Najib’s legal team pinned a large amount of blame on Low throughout the course of the trial held in Kuala Lumpur’s high court, Low attributed just as much blame for the 1MDB heist on Najib, who was finance minister at the time.

“I had no authority to make any decision. It’s a pretty known fact that all the approvals had to be approved by the minister of finance,” Low said on the phone before launching into claims that Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor had spent large sums of 1MDB funds on jewellery. 

Throughout the series of calls, he also disclosed his location in China and revealed that he was paranoid. 

Financial journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, who recounted Low’s alleged exploits in their 2018 book “Billion Dollar Whale,” previously said it was “highly unlikely” that Low would enter a courtroom any time soon and full justice in the 1MDB saga “would not be served” until he was arrested and charged. 

“We were aware that Jho Low was trying to blame Najib and cut a deal with the Mahathir government,” Wright told VICE World News. “It’s hardly surprising. Low has spent the past five years denying his involvement in this fraud, and I don’t see him stopping anytime soon.”