Malaysian financier Jho Taek Low is arguably the most wanted “white-collar criminal” on earth.
Jho Low’s decadent lifestyle, famous and powerful friends, extravagant gifts, luxury real estate, superyacht and private jet made him the global face of what the United States Justice Department dubbed the biggest case of kleptocracy it had ever investigated.
But the man who allegedly masterminded the theft of more than $4.5bn from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1MDB disappeared in 2016 as authorities from Singapore to Australia and the US closed in on the massive fraud.
Jho Low’s whereabouts since then, a source of speculation for years, is now being publicly confirmed by Malaysia’s anti-corruption body.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) said in a written response to questions from Al Jazeera that it “believes the individuals wanted for the 1MDB case, especially Jho Low, are hiding in Macau”.
“This was also confirmed by several individuals who have seen Jho Low in Macau,” the commission said.
The revelation comes just weeks after the arrest of a relatively unknown 1MDB suspect, Kee Kok Thiam.
In the early hours of May 3, MACC officials were ready and waiting as a plane carrying 51-year-old Kee touched down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. According to a Malaysian police source, he was deported from Macau for overstaying his visa.
Kee was released after his interview with MACC officers and the anti-corruption body said no charges had been laid against him “at this time”.
The MACC said the Malaysian government did not receive any notification from Macau regarding Kee’s repatriation, but rather knew “Kee was being deported from Macau based on intelligence networking”.
“The Investigation Paper is focused on the assets belonging to Kee Kok Thiam in Singapore and has been completed and submitted to the attorney general’s office for the next course of action,” an official said.
The anti-corruption body said it had been gathering intelligence since the government issued a travel ban against 1MDB suspects, including Kee, soon after the 2018 election. The historic poll swept former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from power after more than 60 years of uninterrupted rule.
Najib is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for 1MDB related crimes and is facing dozens of other charges related to the misappropriation of 1MDB funds.
When contacted about Kee, Macau authorities declined to comment on specific cases, but said they wanted to “emphasise” that “cases involving foreigners” are always handled “in accordance with the law and procedures, as well as relevant international practices”.
The deportation of Kee comes on the back of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s first official trip to China in late March and recent statements that his government is actively seeking the repatriation of 1MDB fugitives.
“It involves many countries, it involves intelligence services, Interpol etc,” he told reporters as he left an event in Kuala Lumpur a couple of days after Kee’s arrest.
James Chin, a Malaysia expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said there are “only two possibilities” as to why Kee was deported from Macau.
“He ran out of money to be able to pay a high-powered lawyer to fix his visa issue or the orders to have him deported came directly from Beijing,” Chin told Al Jazeera.
Shortly after arriving in Kuala Lumpur, Kee divulged to MACC officers that Macau immigration imprisoned him for a month in 2021, but released him “conditionally” because the semi-autonomous territory’s borders were closed due to COVID regulations, according to the anti-corruption body.
The MACC also said Kee confirmed he met Jho Low and a number of other 1MDB fugitives – including Eric Tan Kim Loong, Casey Tang Keng Chee, Geh Choh Heng and Nik Faisal – in Macau and that Jho Low instructed him “not to return to Malaysia as a witness in the 1MDB case”.
For years, Malaysian authorities have claimed they have been battling to bring 1MDB fugitives back from Chinese territories.
Warrants for Jho Low’s arrest and Interpol red notices against him followed, first by Singapore in October 2016, then Malaysia in June 2018. In November 2018, he was indicted by US authorities for alleged money laundering, bribery and US campaign law violations. In March 2023, Kuwait sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in jail for laundering $1bn of 1MDB funds.
Yet, recordings of phone conversations from May to November 2018 between Jho Low and a representative of the government of Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad revealed the fugitive was free to move from Macau to Hong Kong and back.
In the conversations, Jho Low explains that he has “restrictions”. “It’s a China thing,” he says and suggests, “If you don’t feel comfortable … meeting in these two locations … I’m happy to talk via phone or video call.” At the time he was trying to negotiate the return of the billions of dollars-worth of looted 1MDB assets and funds in exchange for his freedom.
The recordings were obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera and broadcast in the two-part documentary, Jho Low: Hunt for a Fugitive, in November 2020.
In 2020, Malaysian police contacts told Al Jazeera that Jho Low was being protected by a prominent Macau businessman, who was also a high-ranking Chinese official, living in his villa in the enclave’s most exclusive residential area, Penha Hill. Al Jazeera corroborated this information with security sources in the region.
Another high-profile 1MDB fugitive, Nik Faisal, also appears to have found cover in Hong Kong. He too had an Interpol Red Notice issued against him in June 2018.
In July 2020, the then Malaysian inspector general of police (IGP), Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador, told a media conference that Faisal and his family were hiding in the former British colony.
Faisal was the CEO of 1MDB subsidiary, SRC International Sdn Bhd, during the period when hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned into accounts linked to alleged 1MDB scammers. Najib is serving his 12-year sentence for the misappropriation of more than $9m from SRC. The money had been deposited into his personal bank account.
At the same news conference, the then IGP expressed his frustration with China. “Efforts to bring Jho Low home have been ongoing for a long time, however until now, there has not been any convincing responses from the republic,” he said.
Jho Low’s Hong Kong-based company, Jynwel Capital, set up in 2010, appears to still be operating, now under a new name, Quinton Investments Ltd, as is a Shanghai-based company he set up in 2015, now known as Guiyue Business Consulting.
According to an investigation by independent journalists Bradley Hope and Tom Wright that cited corporate records, the Shanghai company is now owned by a British Virgin Islands entity, Grace Zenith Ltd, with a subscribed capital contribution of more than $300m. Jho Low and his wife also registered Mingshi Investment Company with capital of $7m in Taiwan in 2017.
Al Jazeera also understands from Malaysian police sources that prior to COVID lockdowns, Nik Faisal and his wife were known to frequent a prestigious club in the harbour city.
Whatever the status of other 1MDB fugitives in the Chinese territories or on the mainland, many are of the view that the handing over of Kee Kok Thiam to Malaysian authorities is unlikely to see the big fish shipped home any time soon.
“The deportation of Kee Kok Thiam is tokenism, all about politics and appearances,” Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian ambassador and diplomat in Beijing, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not in China’s best interest to release Jho Low. He knows too much. He was party to every shady deal with China during Najib’s time and China wants that forgotten. It doesn’t want it dredged up again, especially as competition between China and the United States heats up.”
Chin also believes that Jho Low’s future in China is secure as long as Anwar is unwilling or unable to make concessions to Beijing on issues clouding their relations.
“Chinese state-owned companies have billions of dollars invested in infrastructure projects in Malaysia that have halted, been renegotiated or aren’t going well. China would want these to be renegotiated and set back on track,” Chin said. “China would also need Malaysia to guarantee cooperation in the exploration of the South China Sea and to not side with the United States over South China Sea security issues.”
Kee is a somewhat shadowy figure. Often described as Jho Low’s “aide”, Kee kept a very low profile, unlike his boss and other 1MDB suspects. No photographs seem to exist of him online.
He first came to attention in 2016 when Singapore authorities alleged that a company linked to him had received more than $5m of 1MDB money. With the assistance of the Singaporean police’s Commercial Affairs Department, MACC seized the funds in the account.
Answering questions regarding the status of these allegedly stolen funds, the MACC said the forfeiture of Kee’s assets in Singapore was still in process.
“Kee Kok Thiam has agreed to hand over all his existing assets under the jurisdiction of Singapore to the Malaysian government,” an MACC official said.
In 2019, the Malaysian government seized more than $330,000 from his bank account as part of a civil forfeiture suit over property and valuables allegedly bought with misappropriated 1MDB funds. Kee had also been a director of several Jho Low-controlled companies, including Javace Sdn Bhd, into which as much as $260m of 1MDB money was funnelled in September 2010, according to Malaysian prosecutors.
Beyond the money Kee allegedly received from 1MDB, he appears to have been one of Jho Low’s most trusted associates.
According to Malaysian court testimonies, it was Kee’s job to deposit funds into Najib’s bank account whenever it was overdrawn and to arrange VIP treatment for the brother of PetroSaudi executive, Tarek Obaid, when he visited Malaysia in 2010.
PetroSaudi, which did not respond to previous requests for comment about its role in the 1MDB scandal, had entered into a joint venture with 1MDB the previous year and was allegedly part of the elaborate scam that saw the diversion of more than $1bn from the sovereign wealth fund into a Jho Low-controlled company.
In the hours after Najib’s historic election loss on May 9, 2018, Kee along with Jho Low and an entourage of four others, including Nik Faisal and lawyer Jasmine Loo Ai Swan, flew on a private jet from Macau to Phuket, Thailand, documents obtained from Malaysian police show. In Phuket, they stayed the night in the ultraexclusive Amanpuri Hotel, before boarding another private jet back to Macau a few days later, according to receipts and immigration documents obtained by the Malaysian police.
Al Jazeera can reveal that in the months leading up to this, Kee Kok Thiam was establishing business interests in Cambodia.
In October 2017, he took over chairmanship of CK Land and Investment Co Ltd from fellow Malaysian, Clement Woo, aka Woo Kee Mun, corporate records show.
Woo’s social media postings reveal he is a fervent supporter of Najib. In July 2019, as Najib faced trial for just a handful of the more than 40 criminal charges against him, Woo expressed hope that the former prime minister would be “protected by God so that he will not be oppressed”.
Elsewhere on the internet, photographs suggest Woo knows the former prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. The US Department of Justice investigation found that Rosmah was a beneficiary of the 1MDB rort, plundered funds buying her bespoke jewellery, most notably a 22-carat pink diamond worth $27m.
In his 2018 conversations with the representative of the Mahathir government, Jho Low estimated that Rosmah was the recipient of jewellery worth “north of half a billion dollars”.
In 2014, Woo was awarded Cambodian citizenship, according to government documents. Photographs posted in December 2017 on his Facebook page show him enjoying what seems to be a very cosy relationship with senior officials, most notably the country’s former commander-in-chief of the armed forces and Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan.
But in March 2018, Woo was arrested by Cambodian authorities for allegedly defrauding Japanese investors of $2m as well as Malaysians and Singaporeans. Describing it an “international crime”, police claimed Woo travelled on four different passports.
When Al Jazeera made inquiries at the time, neither the lawyer for the alleged Japanese victims nor the police responded. There have been no further media reports about the case and Woo continues to be associated with five companies in Cambodia – two registered under Clement Woo and three under Woo Kee Mun – one of which has the country’s former Prime Minister, Ung Huot, as its chairman.
On his Facebook page, Woo now says he is living in Hong Kong and describes himself as the CEO of Marshall Tonfords Development Co Ltd, a company that does not appear to be registered in Hong Kong, Cambodia or elsewhere.
Two weeks after Woo’s arrest in 2018, the 1MDB suspect Kee registered another company in Cambodia, Crown Takeo Co Ltd. As chairman, he oversees the firm with two directors from Liuzhou in China’s Guangxi province – one of whom is the chairman of Lida International, of which Woo is a director.
The company’s businesses include real estate, management consultancy, financial services, hotels and travel.
Adding to the intrigue, Thai immigration records obtained by Al Jazeera in late 2020 show that 1MDB fugitive Jasmine Loo Ai Swan left Thailand for the last time in September 2018. Boarding a Bangkok Airways flight from the Thai capital’s Suvarnabhumi airport, she was bound for Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Despite Kee’s return to Malaysia, Ignatius, the former diplomat, is sceptical about his potential value as a witness.
“China wouldn’t have given him up if it thought he could divulge more than is already known,” he said. “Malaysia has been careful to keep China out of the 1MDB legal cases and I don’t see how Kee could seal Najib’s fate more than it already is.”
Kee, Clement Woo, Ke Kim Yan, Ung Huot and Faisal were unreachable or did not respond to requests for comment about their activities and the activities of their companies. Grace Zenith did not respond to a request for comment. Al Jazeera was unable to locate contact details for Guiyue Business Consulting or Mingshi Investment Company.
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