Written by Joon Ian Wong
Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak may have hundreds of thousands of his countrymen calling for his resignation—embroiled as he is in a multi-billion-dollar corruption case—but he has one thing to be grateful for: His onetime golfing partner is the next president of the United States, whose justice department happens to be pursuing that very same corruption case.
Najib has been talking up his close ties to Trump to the media. He recounted a victorious golf game played years ago at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey to the Star, a Malaysian daily. Najib had been in town for the United Nations General Assembly, and wanted to enjoy some R&R with his Malaysian delegation. Trump, hearing about the group, appeared and joined the game. So Najib and Trump partnered up.
At the game’s conclusion, Trump posed for a photo with Najib and the late Malaysian ambassador to the US, Jamaluddin Jarjis, and autographed it. It was inscribed: “To my favorite Prime Minister. Great win!” according to Najib. The Malaysian PM said he keeps the photo on his desk. “I did it before [Trump] became as famous as he is today,” Najib told the Star.
Najib is now reaping the rewards of that intuition. He says he had a “very warm and productive” phone call with his former golfing partner, and that ties between the two countries would be further strengthened.
Najib will hope that a friendly figure in the White House will help his chances in the biggest kleptocracy case brought by the US justice department to date. It’s seeking $1 billion in assets that it says are tied to “public corruption and a global money laundering conspiracy.”
The assets include royalties from The Wolf of Wall Street (a 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and a clutch of luxury properties in New York, Beverly Hills, and elsewhere. Investigators allege the latter were paid for by money looted from a Malaysian development fund called 1MDB, whose advisory board chairman was Najib.
The case was launched by the justice department under attorney general Loretta Lynch, who will be replaced by senator Jeff Sessions in the Trump administration. The department has filed a civil complaint naming Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, as one of the defendants. Not named in the case is Najib himself, although a figure referred to as “Malaysian Official 1” is mentioned dozens of times, and was reportedly confirmed as Najib.
The US justice department is seen by Malaysians as being one of the few agencies powerful enough to bring the looters of 1MDB to justice. In January Malaysia’s own attorney general—appointed by Najib—cleared Najib of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, a member of parliament who leaked details of a secret government report on 1MDB has been sentenced to 18 months in jail.
“We hope [the incoming administration] would not turn their backs on what has already been put forward by the [justice department],” says Shahrul Aman, deputy chairman of Berish 2.0, an electoral reform group that has organized massive street rallies calling for change in Malaysia. Bersih chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah was released this week from 10 days in solitary confinement after the latest rally, held on Nov. 19 in Kuala Lumpur.
While Najib has also hit the links with Barack Obama, that didn’t stop the outgoing president from taking a perceived potshot at the Malaysian leader in a recent speech. He mentioned corrupt leaders who “siphoned off development funds into Swiss bank accounts.” The 1MDB money trail leads to several Swiss banks.
Of course, just because Trump will be president doesn’t mean he can simply order an ongoing case to be dropped. “The justice department enjoys a level of independence, even though the attorney general is appointed by, and reports to, the president,” said Shruti Shah, vice president of programs and operations at Transparency International in Washington, DC.
Others in Malaysia are skeptical about Najib’s claims of coziness with the president-elect. “The reality is, Trump probably played golf and took photos with many others too. So I am not sure about the so-called ‘relationship,’” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a think tank.
For some Malaysians, there is little choice but to pin their hopes on the US justice department under the Trump administration. “As far as people in Malaysia are concerned, it’s very hard for us to do anything about it… it’s a very difficult situation when even parliamentarians are not allowed to discuss this,” said Bersih’s Shahrul.