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Asia's four lessons from 1MDB

Financial scandals will recur given region's weak enforcement of rules

Malaysia's 1MDB scandal has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller, starring Low Taek Jho, the fugitive financier alleged to have pulled off the heist of the century.

A friend of movie stars and supercar enthusiast, Low is said to have played a role in helping to defraud the state-backed investment group of at least $4.5 billion over a six-year period ending in 2015, according to allegations from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The scale of the Low's chutzpah has been underlined by the publication of a new book, "Billion Dollar Whale." Released last week by Wall Street Journal writers Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, it has done much to bring to light the extraordinary details of Asia's largest financial scandal.

Low, who denies wrong doing, is far from the only figure implicated in this vast enterprise. Earlier this week, for instance, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Najib Razak was formally charged in relation to 1MDB on counts of money laundering and abuse of power, charges which Najib denies.

Yet despite the scale of the suspected fraud, there remains a risk that 1MDB will come to be seen as a one-off event: an affair that on the one hand allegedly involved a charismatic and unique financier -- Low -- while also being the product of a specific period in Malaysian history -- Najib's premiership -- that has now ended.

This would be a grave mistake. Instead, 1MDB should remain a cause for soul-searching across Asia. As the nature of the alleged wrongdoing becomes clearer, it becomes ever more obvious that its lessons have barely begun to be learned. Here are four that should be heeded.

First, penalties for serious financial crime in Asia remain much too light.

At present Low is still at large. Malaysian officials have said he may be sheltering in China. Investigations are ongoing in the U.S., Switzerland, Singapore, and now also Malaysia, where the new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is now vigorously investigating allegations against Najib, his former rival.

Some action has already been taken. Singapore last year sentenced one banker to 54 months in jail, and fined various others. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Tim Leissner, a former Goldman Sachs banker alleged to have aided Low, is talking to U.S. prosecutors a potential plea deal. Leissner has previously denied wrongdoing.

"We helped raise money for 1MDB -- an entity owned and controlled by the Malaysian Government -- so it could make investments to benefit Malaysia," says a spokesman for Goldman Sachs. "We had no visibility into whether some of those funds may have been subsequently diverted to other purpose."

Yet given the scale of the alleged crime, the risk remains that many others involved in the 1MDB debacle will never be appropriately punished.

Malaysia is now seriously pursuing those it suspects of involvement, notably Low and Najib. But it is neither clear it will succeed in its legal moves, nor that it can or will also go after domestic and international financial institutions which allegedly facilitated the scandal.

Even Singapore, among the more aggressive authorities in Asia, in May 2017 levied fines against two implicated banks -- Credit Suisse of Switzerland and Singapore-based United Overseas Bank -- for breaches related to anti-money laundering laws. Yet while both banks accepted the judgment, the size of the fines -- more than $1 million -- were scarcely large enough to send a sufficiently serious signal to the sector.

Second: another 1MDB could very easily happen again. The scandal occurred under the noses of central bankers in Malaysia. Muhammad Ibrahim resigned as governor soon after Mahathir took power after it emerged that the central bank had bought a $500 million plot of land from the government, which used the proceeds to reduce 1MDB debt. The central bank has reopened investigations into its role in the affair.

Yet there is a broader problem here, namely that central banks and financial regulators across Asia are still either unwilling or unable to look into financial crimes of this sort, either because they lack resources, expertise, or because of political constraints imposed by their governments.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore did set up a new anti-money laundering in the aftermath of 1MDB, but in general few regulators have the capacity or inclination properly to monitor the kind of opaque financing allegedly involved in this scandal.

"It could all easily happen again, in Malaysia or anywhere else really," Tom Wright, co-author of Billion Dollar Whale, told me recently. "Unless there are much firmer punishments, and central banks begin to focus closely on large, suspicious flows."

The third lesson is geopolitical, about waning U.S. power. It is no accident that 1MDB came to light at a time when American regulators were willing to probe crimes in almost any country. Above all, it has been the investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, kicked off under former President Barack Obama, that brought the scandal into public view.

It unlikely the U.S. will now continue to play this role in Asia, and especially so given the inclinations of President Donald Trump. Wright suggests the scandal "probably" would not have come to light at all if Trump had been in power, rather than Obama.

Yet if America is less likely to play global financial policeman, it only underlines the importance of financial and anti-corruption regulators in the region stepping up to fill the gap. And the role of democratic elections where voters have the chance to impose their will, as happened in Malaysia.

Financial wrongdoing is not a problem that will go away as economies grow richer, as the money laundering scandal in Europe involving Denmark’s Danske Bank shows. Without regulatory vigilance, the risk is that it simply gets more sophisticated, and the sums extracted more eye-catching. 

This then brings us to the final lesson, which involves China, and its growing financial heft.

China has lately taken center stage in the 1MDB investigation, not least because Malaysian officials think Low is hiding in the country. So far Beijing has said nothing about his whereabouts, although China has said it will support moves elsewhere to investigate 1MDB.

Yet the more details of 1MDB that come to light the more it seems like that the scandal has links to China too. In July, Lim Guan Eng, Mahathir's finance minister, suggested a connection between the scandal and Malaysia's involvement in China's Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure scheme. Specifically, Malaysia is examining whether loans from Chinese state-owned banks were used to repay debts run up by 1MDB.

Whatever the details of this, there is a general lesson to be drawn, which is that as Asia's financial system becomes more dominated by opaque Chinese flows, the odds of future 1MDB-style scandals will only increase. The giant quantities of money linked to the Belt and Road Initiative and sloshing with little transparency from China are an obvious channel for potentially carrying out and concealing fraud.

Around the region, and especially so in Beijing, there is a sense that Malaysia should now quietly move on from 1MDB. This would be exactly the wrong thing to do. 1MDB remains the biggest recent stain on Asia's reputation for financial probity. On present form, it isn't going to be the last.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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