The Inner Circle

How Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak met the fugitive businessman 

Published 5 years ago on Aug 24, 2019 5 minutes Read

Hong Kong, China, December 2007

In the lobby of Hong Kong’s opulent Shangri-La Hotel, perched on a steep hill with views over the city’s skyscrapers and the narrow harbor below, there was a commotion. The throng of handlers, security personnel, and assorted sycophants who clung around Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were trying to load the car taking them to the airport, but there was a problem. And Rosmah, her hair in a bouffant, the product of hours at the salon, and bedecked in expensive jewelry, was losing patience.

Najib had spent the past couple of days meeting fund managers with Credit Suisse, the investment bank, aimed at drumming up foreign investment. Malaysia’s commodities-heavy economy was beginning to attract the attention of Wall Street banks. While Najib sat in conference rooms, Rosmah had indulged in Hong Kong’s plethora of luxury boutiques. Now there was a problem. Rosmah’s towering pile of boxes and shopping bags would not fit into the car taking them to the Malaysian government jet that was on standby in the VIP hangar at Chek Lap Kok airport. Scrambling, Rosmah’s staff eventually found a van to haul the excess baggage. It took so long to make the arrangements and load the cargo hold, the jet did not take off for Malaysia until after midnight.

As the heir to a Malaysian political dynasty—his father and uncle had both been prime ministers—Najib and his wife were accustomed to a retinue of handlers who looked after their every need. In his midfifties with thick red lips and a salt-and-pepper mustache, his face often wearing a look of happy befuddlement, Najib was the epitome of an entitled politician. His father, Abdul Razak, tried to instill an old-fashioned morality into Najib and his four younger brothers. When the boys asked for a swimming pool at the prime minister’s official residence, their father rejected the proposal, lecturing his children on how a public servant should not use state funds for personal pleasure. But Abdul Razak died young, when Najib was only twenty-two, and with him any restraining influence also vanished. From then on, the boys, and especially Najib, were enveloped in the privileged bubble of the ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.
Educated at Malvern College, an illustrious British boarding school, and the University of Nottingham, Najib preferred English to Malay. Like an English gentleman, he had a penchant for expensive cigars and watched English TV shows like Yes Minister, a sitcom about a bumbling government minister. On the back of his revered father’s name, he held a string of plum government positions. A deputy minister by his midtwenties, Najib didn’t bother himself much with the mundane details of governance, preferring to attend events and make speeches. From the outset, he was surrounded by yes men.

UMNO had ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. Malaysia held regular elections, but the system was deeply flawed and corrupt. In the 1970s, Najib’s father ushered in policies whose effect was to help Malays, the majority ethnic group. The government reserved university places for Malays, gave special financial handouts to Malays, and even favored Malay-owned companies for state contracts. By 2007, these policies had spawned a thick web of graft in which businesses, many controlled by Chinese and Indian Malaysians, had to pay kickbacks to the likes of Najib and Rosmah in order to operate.

Rosmah’s origins were somewhat more humble. Her parents were middle-class school teachers, but she had partly grown up on the grounds of the palace of a Malaysian sultan, who had adopted the family as his own. The experience had exposed Rosmah to wealth from a young age but also instilled in her a sense of insecurity, of not truly belonging to the aristocratic world she inhabited, according to people who know her. Fascinated by royalty, Rosmah reportedly eyed members of Brunei’s royal family for marriage before she met Najib in the 1980s. She was working for a property company and he was a chief minister. They married soon after, a second union for them both.

When Rosmah first boarded a government private jet, she was enthralled by her new surroundings. To compensate for her common origins, she began to dress in fine silks and precious jewels. She could be humorous, but she also exhibited a draconian streak, yelling at aides and cutting off contact with a daughter from her first marriage because she disliked her choice of husband. Relationships for her appeared to be transactional. Foreign businessmen seeking government support for a new venture would often meet her first, and she’d set up a follow-up encounter with Najib.

Grandees from the ruling UMNO party grew concerned about the deputy prime minister and his wife. Most politicians had made money through kickbacks for government contracts and property deals, and Najib was no exception. But by the mid-2000s Rosmah’s spending had reached new extremes, even for Malaysia. One story that made the rounds involved her breezing into a Hermès store and informing the clerks of the few items she did not want to buy, before ordering one of everything else.

To finance her penchant for luxury items, Rosmah was pilfering the state coffers. One Malaysian businessman detailed how it worked: He would buy properties from state-owned companies before selling them at a markup to other state firms, sharing the profit with Rosmah. She was already an unpopular figure in Malaysia, having developed a reputation as a social climber and modern-day Imelda Marcos, whose penchant for high-end accessories, like Birkin handbags by Hermès, which cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece, seemed beyond the reach of Najib’s official salary.

In late 2006, a Mongolian model, a girlfriend of a Najib aide, was shot dead, and her corpse was then blown up with C4 explosives. At the time she was killed, the dead woman’s boyfriend, an aide in Najib’s Defense Ministry, was facing accusations of accepting bribes worth more than $100 million from a French submarine company. A Malaysian court later convicted two police officers for the murder. At the time, the officers were part of Najib’s personal security detail. Najib denied any knowledge of the killing, but the sordid affair stuck to him like a rotting smell.

By 2007, with Najib harboring ambitions for the nation’s top office, one once held by his father, the ambitious couple needed some good news. It arrived in the form of a friend of Rosmah’s son, a young man called Jho Low whom they had met in London.
This is an extract from Billion Dollar Whale published by Hachette Books