On his first day in office Malaysia’s new attorney general pledged Wednesday to mount a rigorous and transparent probe into the 1MDB financial scandal, as the central bank governor appointed by the previous government resigned, saying he had lost the public’s trust.
Attorney General Tommy Thomas said he would start by contacting the United States, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore and other countries to seek the return of billions of ringgit allegedly siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund.
“All are equal before the law and no one shall be spared. There will be no cover ups and we will immediately contact our counterparts with the objective of having them return the billions stolen from the taxpayers,” said Thomas, 66, a London School of Economics graduate.
He said there would be no interference by anyone, including the prime minister, as his office resumed the 1MDB probe.
“Those who commit no wrong should not fear the midnight knock of policemen, but those who broke the law will be met with the full force of the law regardless of their station in life,” he said.
“I promise to do the right thing that is to tell the truth and to discharge my duty honestly, fairly, freely, independently and to the best of my ability.”
Former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Najib Razak, whose Barisan Nasional coalition lost last month’s general election, founded 1MDB in 2009 as an investment vehicle to spur development in Malaysia. While allegations have linked him to the missing funds, Najib, who was on the 1MDB advisory board until its dissolution in 2016, has denied any wrongdoing.
Since the election, the new government has barred Najib and his wife from traveling abroad. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission also interviewed the couple separately as part of an investigation connected to 1MDB.
‘We abhor any semblance of corruption’
Also on Wednesday, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that his cabinet had accepted the resignation of Muhammad Ibrahim, the governor of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the country’s central bank, only two years into the job.
Muhammad said he resigned because he had lost the public’s trust, according to a report published on Wednesday night by Bernama, the state-run news agency.
“As a central bank, we are only as effective as the trust and confidence that the people of Malaysia and its leaders place in us,” he said.
“I am prepared to relinquish my post if I no longer have the strong trust and support of the public. I cannot in good conscience continue if it affects the bank’s image and reputation.”
On Tuesday, media reports began circulating that he offered to resign after Lim Guan Eng, the new finance minister, had raised questions about the bank’s alleged $520 million purchase of land from Najib’s government as a way for the former administration to pay off some of 1MDB’s debts.
Muhammad denied that the central bank was involved in the 1MDB scandal.
“This is totally untrue. BNM will never be party to any such activities that would betray the public trust in us. We abhor any semblance of corruption and abuse of power,” he said, according to reports.
Mahathir said the cabinet had not decided on the bank governor’s replacement, “because we need to have the approval of the king before we can announce [an appointment].”
Former Deputy Governor Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus is a candidate to take over the bank, Reuters news service reported, citing two sources. Nor Shamsiah, who left when her term expired in 2016, assisted in the 1MDB investigation under Muhammad’s predecessor, Zeti Akhtar Aziz.
Zeti retired from the post in April 2016 after having participated the previous year in a special task force investigating allegations of financial mismanagement and corruption at 1MDB.
Two years ago, the United States Justice Department (DOJ) filed a dozen lawsuits seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than U.S. $1 billion (3.9 billion ringgit) in assets allegedly paid for with stolen 1MDB money. A source involved in the U.S. investigation identified Najib as “Malaysian Official 1” who figured prominently in DOJ court papers.
U.S. justice officials have described the 1MDB affair as “the worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times,” pointing out that more than $4.5 billion (17.9 billion ringgit) was stolen from the fund since its inception.
In 2016, authorities in Singapore announced they had seized assets totaling S$240 million (U.S. $177 million) – of which S$120 million (U.S. $88.5 million) was from a close ally of Najib, Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho (also known as Jho Low) and his immediate family.
New attorney general
Mahathir named Thomas, an ethnic Indian Christian senior lawyer with more than 40 years of experience, to serve as attorney general in the new government.
But the prime minister’s announcement spurred a backlash from rightwing Malay Muslims who were concerned that his appointment would compromise the status and the rights of ethnic majority Malays and indigenous people, as well as the status of Islam as the federal religion.
The controversy compelled Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of the ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance, to intervene and assure that the rights of Malays and the standing of Islam would be preserved through the appointment of a non-Malay attorney general. Ibrahim, who had been jailed during the election but was pardoned of his sodomy conviction by the king, is expected to succeed Mahathir in a year or two.
Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s king, consented to approving Thomas as the new AG after consulting with the Council of Rulers as well as Mahathir on the matter.
Thomas replaces Mohamed Apandi Ali, who served under Najib and froze all investigations into 1MDB when he cleared him of allegations of wrongdoing tied to the fund in January 2016.
Apandi reached out to his successor. “Congratulations to Tommy (Thomas) and all the best to him in discharging his new duties as the AG,” Apandi said in a text message to The Star.
In addition to investigating 1MDB, Thomas said he would focus on repealing oppressive laws and reviewing previous government contracts.
“We have to independently study the obligation taken by the previous administration such as contracts in other countries to ascertain if there are any that go against the interest of Malaysia,” he said.
Saying he understood concerns about his not being Malay, Thomas admitted that he needed to polish his fluency in Bahasa Melayu, a regional dialect, after critics questioned his ability to speak it fluently.
“Forty-two years of private practice, dealings with commercial clients I have neglected my Bahasa Melayu. I promise to brush up,” he said with a smile.
Akhbar Satar, the president of the Malaysian chapter of graft watchdog Transparency International, welcomed Thomas’ appointment, saying he brought strong credentials and many years of experience to the office.
“Public expectations are high and we are confident he will able to deliver,” Akhbar said.