Off the coast of West Papua, a gigantic luxury superyacht traverses the sea.
This is Equanimity, a floating palace belonging to businessman Jho Low, a key target of an international investigation into the multibillion-dollar looting of Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
Despite his closeness to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak — who is alleged to have received hundreds of millions from the gigantic fraud — Low reportedly has been warned off returning to Malaysia.
Instead, amid reports he could be arrested and charged within weeks or months following an international investigation, Low is said to be splitting his time between Equanimity’s gold-plated interior and the equally luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, overlooking the Huangpu River.
In the past six months, the yacht has cruises the seas of Southeast Asia on a tour taking in Cambodia, Thailand, Bali and some of Indonesia’s tiniest islands.
According to US court documents, it is during a frolic on Equanimity in 2014 that Low gave his then girlfriend, Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr, a diamond jewellery set worth $US2 million — money the US Department of Justice says is directly traceable back to 1MDB.
“The excursion was planned at Low’s direction by a high-end concierge service, and meticulous planning went into arranging the manner in which Low would present each piece of the matching diamond jewellery set to Kerr,” the Department of Justice said in a US Federal Court filing last month.
According to the department, all up the lovestruck Low spent more than $US10m of money that really belonged to the poverty-stricken people of Malaysia on baubles for Kerr.
(She has since returned the gems and there is no suggestion she knew where the funds for the jewellery might have come from.)
The Department of Justice accuses Low and his associates of using complex webs of tax haven companies to siphon money away from the fund, which was set up by Najib with the stated purpose of “driving the sustainable long-term economic development and growth of Malaysia”, and spending a chunk of the proceeds on luxuries for themselves.
While the bulk of the heavy lifting in the international inquiry has been done in Singapore, where Low banked, Switzerland, where he and his alleged cronies also held accounts, and the US, where more than $US1 billion in assets including modern art, mansions, aircraft and the proceeds of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Wolf of Wall Street have been frozen, Australian investigators are also doing their bit.
Australian Federal Police are investigating whether any proceeds of the alleged crime may have ended up in Australia — a line of inquiry that may well lead them back to New Year’s Eve 2012-13 and an extraordinary continent-spanning party involving DiCaprio, other Hollywood types including Jamie Foxx and Sydney casino The Star.
The global investigation also makes for uncomfortable times for Australian companies that have done business with 1MDB or Low, including ANZ — which part-owns the Malaysian bank where Najib allegedly received his cut of the ill-gotten gains — and Lendlease, which is supposed to be working on 1MDB’s former flagship project, the mammoth Tun Razak Exchange in Kuala Lumpur.
It was an all-star cast that gathered in Sydney, ready to ring in 2013 — twice. The plan was to celebrate midnight in Sydney before hopping on a plane for Las Vegas to continue the shenanigans and do the new year again.
Among the 15-strong throng, according to excited media coverage at the time, were Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, Glee’s Matthew Morrison, Arrow hunk Colton Haynes and DJ Samantha Ronson, famous at the time for being the former girlfriend of Hollywood bad girl Lindsay Lohan.
But what Australian media didn’t know was that the extravagant spree was put on by Low.
“Only JL (Jho Low) can manage this for double countdowns 2013,” a Low associate posted on Instagram.
The social media posts, first published by Sarawak Report, a website run by London-based journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, paint a picture of excess including gambling with at least $700,000 worth of chips in The Star’s VIP-only high roller Sovereign Room.
“A good way to waste a million dollars,” the Low associate commented.
The people of Malaysia, who the US Department of Justice says have been robbed of $US3.5bn — money that could have funded desperately needed schools, hospitals, roads and railways — might agree it was definitely a waste.
After the midnight fireworks, the revellers made their way to Canberra Airport — it being after Sydney’s flight curfew — where they boarded a 747, apparently chartered from US operator Atlas Air, for the flight to Vegas.
Foxx seemed still on a high when he impressed British TV host Jonathan Ross with the story a couple of weeks later.
“I’ve got a friend, he’s got some money, he’s got some money,” Foxx said. “He flew me, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and some other cats — we flew to Australia. We did the countdown in Australia, then jumped back on the plane, then did the countdown in Vegas. That’s crazy.”
A Star spokeswoman declined to answer The Australian’s questions about the gambling binge, including whether the flood of money crossing its tables had been reported to financial intelligence agency Austrac under rules designed to curb money laundering and terror finance.
She also declined to say whether the casino was co-operating with the AFP’s investigation of 1MDB.
“The Star’s compliance in the area of AML/CTF (anti-money laundering/counter terrorism finance rules) is rigorous to ensure appropriate controls and safeguards are in place in respect of more than 11 million visitors that we welcome each year,” she said. “The Star delivers world’s best practice in terms of security/surveillance operations under far greater levels of oversight and regulation than any other licensed operator in NSW.”
An Atlas Air spokesman also declined to comment.
The Low family and 1MDB have other Aussie connections.
Chief among them is the ANZ, which owns almost a quarter of Malaysia’s AmBank. It was into Najib’s account at AmBank’s private arm that $US681m was mysteriously deposited, just before the 2013 election.
While it’s now reported as much as $US1.4bn passed through Najib’s bank accounts, the $US681m deposit has attracted the most attention.
Najib and his supporters claim the money was a personal donation from a Saudi prince and that about $US620m was later returned. But in court documents the US Department of Justice, which refers to Najib as “Malaysian Official 1”, traces the money to a bond issue organised by investment bank Goldman Sachs that was supposed to fund 1MDB.
In 2010, AmBank also helped organise a deal involving PetroSaudi, a company formerly fronted by a Saudi prince with which 1MDB had a joint venture deal.
This involved PetroSaudi buying, for about $US450m, the venerable UBG conglomerate where Low was on the board, from Malaysia’s Taib family and Low’s Abu Dhabi-Kuwait-Malaysia Investment Corporation.
ANZ has done its best to distance itself from AmBank, even though under a shareholder agreement it has the right to appoint a clutch of key management personnel and has representatives on the Malaysian bank’s board.
The AmBank stake is also up for grabs as part of a general sell-off of ANZ’s Asian businesses — but, after more than a year on the market, buyers keen on a slice of scandal seem thin on the ground.
The other Australian corporate giant entangled with 1MDB is construction group Lendlease, which in March 2015 signed on to build 7ha of hotels, apartment towers and retail worth $2.8bn at the sovereign wealth fund’s flagship real estate project, the 28ha Tun Razak Exchange in Kuala Lumpur.
Named for Najib’s father, Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein, TRX was supposed to be funded out of the bonds issued by Goldman Sachs back in 2013.
After winning the job, Lendlease told the stock exchange that construction was to start in the first half of last year and be finished by 2024.
Lendlease now says the retail mall will be open by 2020, the first towers will rise from the ground by 2022 and the whole thing will be finished by 2025.
But with the bond issue allegedly comprehensively looted by Low, Najib and their cronies, it is unclear where the money will come from.
In March, Lendlease said its agreement to develop the site with the Malaysian Ministry of Finance, which has replaced 1MDB as the Australian company’s joint venture partner, was “unconditional”. Lendlease told The Australian it did “extensive due diligence” on the project.
A spokesman wouldn’t explain how the project was now to be financed but said the company was “working closely” with Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance.
“The development of TRX Lifestyle Quarter is underpinned by very strong investment credentials and represents a major transformation of this part of Kuala Lumpur,” he said.
The Low family also has longstanding links to Australia through Jho Low’s father, Larry Low Hock Peng, who was part of a raid on the local corporate scene in the early 1990s that stung media billionaire Kerry Stokes.
From 1992, Larry Low was a director of a listed Australian company called Ledge Group. A company sharing Low’s address in Penang, Corum International, also owned nearly 27 per cent of Ledge.
Ledge changed its name in 1994 to MediaTech on the promise of making a mint out of sending out mass faxes using the spare capacity between frames in TV broadcasts. It bought 30 per cent of a company called Faxtech, the creation of British former bankrupt and offshore entrepreneur Herbert Towning.
The deal sent MediaTech shares soaring from 31c to 92c. Stokes also was on board with Faxtech through a $2m stake in a different part of the globe-spanning empire.
But after a full merger between MediaTech and Faxtech, and the failure of a proposal to move the company to the British Virgin Islands and list on the US Nasdaq market, MediaTech collapsed into administration.
Now, under new management, the company is Pacific Star Network, which owns radio stations in Melbourne and publishes a clutch of specialist magazines.
Low Sr also did stints as a director of two listed mining minnows, Accent Resources and Dynasty Resources, in the middle and late 2000s.
“All I know is the Low family is megabucks,” one former Australian business associate said. “At night-time they knew how to party — karaoke bars, cigars. If they’ve come to Australia and left, they made plenty of money.”
Meanwhile, the only Australian assets so far definitely linked to the 1MDB debacle can be found on Queensland’s sin strip, the Gold Coast.
The coast is home to Avestra, a funds management group linked to Bridge Global, a Cayman Islands fund manager that allegedly was used to hide some of the financial black holes in 1MDB.
According to the Department of Justice, this “involved a series of complicated and commercially unnecessary transactions”.
“The transactions had no economic substance, amounting to a round trip of various securities and commercial paper that were designed to, and did have, a specific and false accounting effect — namely, the fraudulent inflation of the value of 1MDB’s assets,” the Department of Justice said in a court filing.
Avestra is now being liquidated after court action by the corporate regulator.
The Gold Coast is also where young Singaporean banker Yeo Jiawei accumulated a multimillion-dollar property portfolio including shops and a $1.3m apartment in the luxury Soul building.
Yeo, a former wealth manager at Swiss bank BSI, already has been jailed in Singapore for tampering with witnesses and trying to conceal his links to Low.
In July, he copped an additional 54 months’ jail after pleading guilty to separate money laundering charges over the 1MDB affair.
Back in West Papua, as the international investigation continues, Equanimity continues to sail back and forth.
Australian investigators missed their chance to lay hands on the $165m superyacht when it pulled into Cairns for a pit stop in late March last year.
It may be some time before the boat comes back in.