Malaysian activists are in Switzerland this week to plead for the return of funds allegedly pilfered from state fund 1MDB. The problem? They face a no-claim deadlock.
Swiss lower house lawmakers debate a motion this week to return 104 million Swiss francs ($109.6 million) that allegedly belongs to Malaysia. The funds landed in Swiss banks in an alleged $4.5 billion graft scheme which the U.S.’ top prosecutor called «kleptocracy at its worst.»
Stern words for Malaysia, traditionally a staunch U.S. ally. At least six countries including the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland, and Luxembourg are investigating, at least one high-profile protagonist has clinched a settlement, and authorities seem hot on the heels of another.
No, Thanks to the Money
This week, Malaysian activists including Cynthia Gabriel visited Bern to meet lawmakers who drafted the motion to return 1MDB money. Their main problem? Official Malaysia isn’t asking for it back.
«It is a shame that the Swiss parliament has to debate and vote on the 1MDB scandal while an open debate in Malaysian parliament has never been allowed to take place,» Gabriel, who runs the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, said in a statement.
The scandal has barely rippled is Malaysia itself, which might have noticed several billion missing from its public purse. Why? Malaysia quashed an auditor’s report into the affair, and lawmakers were blocked in court recently from attempting to make its contents public. The country has also thus far dragged its feet on cooperating with the Swiss prosecutor’s investigation.
Close Election Race
Meanwhile nearly two years on from when the scandal first surfaced, Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to call an election in coming the months.
Najib enjoys wide popularity even as 1MDB returns to the headlines, in part because of a crippled Malaysian opposition. He is also rushing through changes to voting maps, which are expected to bolster his election showing.
The PM, who is reportedly referenced but not named in U.S. legal filings on 1MDB, will be loath to admit Malaysia has been damaged by the scandal – it would only raise tricky questions about his role in overseeing the fund.
«No Damages, No Victim»
Najib is poised to carry the coming election, which means the scandal is likely to rumble on abroad and not register much in Malaysia.
Without Malaysia admitting it has been hurt by the 1MDB scandal, Switzerland has little option but to hold the contested and seized funds in treasury until either the law is changed or Malaysia decides to make a claim for them.
The «no damages» argument is also one adopted by some private bankers in Switzerland and Singapore, who argue that prosecutors can’t pursue what the victim doesn’t view as a crime.