Fast Facts

  • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak under pressure to resign
  • US Justice Department alleges $1bn siphoned from 1MDB government fund
  • Assets purchased with funds include luxury US property, a private jet and works of art   

Pressure is mounting on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak after calls for his resignation over allegations that $1bn was siphoned from Malaysia's state-owned 1MDB investment fund to purchase luxury properties, works of art and a business jet.

Lawsuits were filed on Wednesday in California by the US Justice Department to seize assets "involved in and traceable to an international conspiracy to launder money misappropriated from 1MDB" over a four-year period.

Among the assets purchased were works of art valued at $137 million, including a $35m painting by Claude Monet, US Attorney and California Chief Prosecutor Eileen Decker said.

"I suggest the people push for a referendum on the prime minister's leadership," Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Thursday.

Malaysians should have a "peaceful rally" to demand Najib's removal from office over the affair, he said.

Ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad: Malaysia 'will go to the dogs' 

Malaysian opposition party leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, also called on Najib to step down, and for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the claims of corruption.

"I believe the Malaysian people want Dato' Sri Najib to go on leave as prime minister so as not to create the perception of abuse of power or process to halt or hinder a full and transparent investigation on this very serious issue," Wan Azizah, president of the People's Justice Party (PKR), said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event in Kuala Lumpur, Najib said his government would give its full cooperation to an international investigation of the 1MDB case.

"It needs to be clear that this is a civil, not criminal procedure," Najib said.

"And we don't want to come to any conclusions until that process is done. We have to establish the facts first. I want to say categorically that we are serious about good governance," he said.

Malaysia's Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi issued a statement in support of Najib, noting that there was no evidence that funds were misappropriated from 1MDB and no criminal charges have been made against any individuals.

Apandi expressed "strong concerns at the insinuations and allegations" of wrongdoing made against the prime minister.

Authorities in neighbouring Singapore said on Thursday that they seized assets worth $240m in their own investigation of the 1MDB-related fund for possible money laundering.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore, as well as the city state's attorney general's chambers and the commercial affairs department, said their investigation of the funds found "deficiencies" at several major banks, including "undue delay in detecting and reporting suspicious transactions."

'Malaysian Official 1'

The US Justice Department lawsuits do not specifically name Najib. They do, however, refer to "Malaysian Official 1", who is described in the court papers as "a high-ranking official in the Malaysian government who also held a position of authority with 1MDB".

A source familiar with the investigation told the Reuters news agency that "Malaysian Official 1" is Najib.

One of those named in the lawsuit is Najib's stepson Riza Aziz, the founder of Red Granite Pictures, which produced the Oscar-nominated 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Opponents of Malaysian PM join hands to oust him

Tens of millions of dollars diverted from 1MDB were used to produce the film, prosecutors claim. According to the complaint, 11 wire transfers totaling $64m were used to fund the studio's operations.

Red Granite said on Wednesday that none of the funding it received four years ago was illegitimate and nothing the company or Riza did was wrong.The Wolf of Wall Street made $400m at the box office worldwide.

Leslie Caldwell, US assistant attorney general, said that neither 1MDB nor the Malaysia people saw "a penny of profit from that film", or the other assets that were purchased with funds siphoned from 1MDB.

The lawsuits also name Najib's friend, Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, and Abu Dhabi government officials Khadem al-Qubaisi and Mohamed Ahmed Badawy Al-Husseiny.

Al Jazeera's correspondent Sohail Rahman, speaking from Kuala Lumpur, said ordinary Malaysians are likely to be shocked by this US investigation, as the Malaysian government's own probe of 1MDB has already ended.

"The case in theory has been closed since October when the attorney general here in Malaysia said that there was no wrongdoing, and ordered the Malaysian anti-corruption commission to close the case.

Mahathir Mohamad on corruption and 'saving Malaysia' - UpFront

"However, this re-opens it from, certainly, across the Pacific, where the US now will go forward to try and investigate how these assets were bought," Rahman said.

As the prime minister holds the financial portfolio under which 1MDB operates, Najib's critics say he should have known what was going on "and many actually accuse him of being involved in this whole scenario," Rahman said.

Ibrahim Suffian, programme director at the Merdeka Centre, a Malaysian research firm, told Al Jazeera that the country witnessed mass protests last year when around 100,000 people came out on the streets calling on Najib to resign over similar allegations.

"There certainly is very large pressure on the government to address what the Malaysian public rightly perceives to be a trust deficit. So certainly there is pressure," Suffian said of the latest 1MDB controversy engulfing the prime minister.

The 1MDB fund was created in 2009 by the Malaysian government with the goal of promoting economic development projects in the Asian nation.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Washington DC, Kimberly Halkett, said the investigation is likely to strain US relations with Malaysia, which President Obama had personally tried to cultivate, having played a round of golf with Najib during a visit to the country in 2014.
101 East - Malaysia: Crackdown on Freedom

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies