Recently brought to Netflix, Man on the Run is a documentary film about the infamous 1MDB scandal, presented in a crisp manner with a solid background and interviews with almost every notable individual involved in the incident. Still considered one of the biggest financial scams in world history, the 1MDB scandal saw millions of dollars stolen from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund by a corrupt few. Man on the Run is a very well-made documentary, to say the least, as it effectively brings out the entire matter and also features an interview with one of the primary accused.
What was the 1MDB scandal?
To explain the 1MDB scam and one of the primary accused in the scandal, Najib Abdul Razak, Man on the Run starts with the man’s history, which becomes important in understanding his audacity. Najib Razak was born into the distinguished and powerful Razak family, which sometimes drew comparisons with the Kennedy family in the United States. Najib’s father, Tun Razak, had also served as the second Prime Minister of the country, making it almost certain that the son would enter politics as well. Naturally, Najib began a career in politics, climbing to the position of defense minister, awaiting his turn to become the country’s leader. It was certain that Najib’s time would come, and finally, in 2009, the man was elected as the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Following his appointment, Najib Razak created the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, 1MDB, as part of his 1Malaysia political campaign.
1MDB was a sovereign wealth fund created by the government with the plan to use the money for investments abroad. To lay it out in simple terms, the 1MDB was a fund that would be used to invest in bonds and projects in foreign countries with the intention of reaping profits from these investments in the long run, which would then be used for development projects in Malaysia. While sovereign wealth funds were a very common matter in wealthy countries like the UAE and Qatar, in 2009, Malaysia still did not have enough funds for foreign investments. Therefore, the Malaysian government decided to borrow money for the 1MDB and then invest it globally, which was still a safe and sound financial decision. One of the first joint ventures signed by the fund was with a Saudi Arabian oil company, PetroSaudi, and later on, this very deal was found to be an absolute scam.
Headed by a wealthy businessman named Jho Low and backed by Najib Razak, 1MDB started making significant investments in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. There were already some questionable elements in the manner in which the fund was operated, but there was not enough suspicion expressed by the authorities yet. One of the strangest matters was the chain of command, which had the authority of Najib Razak smeared all over the fund, for the man was not only the Prime Minister of the country but was also the Minister of Finance and the Chairman of 1MDB. Hence, whenever Low made a decision for any investment, Razak signed the approval without any considerable scrutiny by any other authority. Gradually, as the sovereign fund became more popular, creating a name as an investment body, the American investment bank, Goldman Sachs, came for its own earnings.
In the manner in which the interview subjects in Man on the Run present Goldman Sachs, or even how their activities turned out to be in the 1MDB scandal, the American bank comes off as an extremely greedy and manipulative entity concerned only about their own profits. Through two intermediary bankers, Tim Leissner and Roger Ng, Goldman Sachs started working as the banker in the deals made between 1MDB and the foreign firms. Once again, an instant point of suspicion was the amount of commission that Goldman Sachs was reportedly receiving for the deals, which went as high as 10% in some cases, and by 2015, various investigative journalists in the country and in the US, along with Malaysian opposition leaders, started to take note of these discrepancies. The biggest matter of all was the huge amounts of debt that 1MDB had already generated within a span of a few years, and it was only a matter of time before the whole truth unfolded.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a report that stated that millions of dollars that were supposed to be in the 1MDB fund had been transferred to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal account. Gradually, as more investigations by journalists and authorities followed, it was revealed that huge amounts of money belonging to 1MDB and the various deals that they made with foreign trusts and firms had been funneled into the personal accounts of Razak and Jho Low. Essentially, the hard-earned money of the Malaysian citizens, which was being collected through tax and gathered in the 1MDB fund, was being stolen by the few corrupt men at the very top. Razak was found to have used the money to even buy extravagant and ludicrously expensive gifts for his wife, Rosmah Mansor.
Within some time, the United States Department of Justice also started a detailed investigation of the matter, since American companies, primarily Goldman Sachs, were also involved in the scandal. It was also found out that many of the deals made by the 1MDB were extremely suspicious, and some were proven to be illegal ones. One of their earliest deals, with PetroSaudi, involved such a scam, as the company was promising to give ownership of oil fields in Turkmenistan in exchange for the money that 1MDB was paying. However, PetroSaudi did not even own these oil fields or were not even in the process of buying them, and the 1MDB investors were also aware of this. Many of the deals made by the Malaysian fund had money received by companies owned by the likes of Jho Low, making it evident that they were stealing money through this entire structure. Goldman Sachs was also in on this elaborate scandal, and the high commission rate they were charging was part of their corrupt arrangement with 1MDB to broker more such unethical deals. By the end of the investigation carried out by the US Department of Justice in 2016, they termed the 1MDB scandal the biggest case of kleptocracy in the world.
What happened to Najib Razak?
When journalists and news agencies first started reporting on the 1MDB scandal and questioning the role of the authorities in it, Najib Razak’s government actively fired and called out any opposition that he had. From when the man had to face any questions about the incident, Razak claimed, and in fact, still maintains, that he was innocent. He denied all the claims against him, even after the publication of the Wall Street Journal report, which led to severe protests by citizens in Malaysia. Soon, the scandal took a political turn, for the common people of Malaysia understandably did not want to be led by a corrupt politician and a proven thief any longer. The protests were led by the leader of the opposition party, Anwar Ibrahim, along with other political leaders as well.
It all came down to the general elections in 2018, when Najib Razak had to face the final hurdle. In a very unprecedented manner, a senior politician of Razak’s party alliance and also the previous Prime Minister of the country, Mahathir Mohamad, came together with Anwar Ibrahim and opposed Razak together. In a shocking and unexpected result, Mahathir Mohamad won the election against Najib Razak, ending his power. A number of criminal charges, including those of embezzlement and money laundering, were brought against Razak, with his properties searched and luxury items all seized. Within a short time, he was found guilty of seven charges of corruption, and the man was arrested by the police. However, Razak was also granted bail and allowed to remain free after he filed for appeals in the High Court.
Najib Razak appears and sits for an interview in Man on the Run too, where he continues to claim his innocence in the whole scandal. The former Prime Minister’s words come off as rather shameless, as he states that he had been the victim of corruption and that the entire system of governance had failed him. According to Razak, it was entirely Jho Low who had come up with the idea of 1MDB, and it was the businessman who then carried out the whole scam. Razak denies knowing Low earlier, whereas it is a proven fact that the two had gotten close to each other from the time when Razak was still the defense minister. He also claims that Low bribed every other politician and worker in the 1MDB fund to ensure that shady deals were signed, but apparently, he was never aware of the true significance of these deals. In a desperate attempt, the man also tries to push the blame on the chairman of the fund, despite the fact that he himself used to hold the position.
Finally, in 2022, Najib Razak lost his appeal in the High Court and was sentenced to twelve years in prison, which he was serving at the time. After numerous scandalous findings against it, including an attempt to influence American elections too, the 1MDB fund was suspended, having garnered around 10 billion dollars of debt that Malaysia has to pay back. Among the others, only the banker Roger Ng was charged with a prison sentence, while Tim Leissner managed to avoid one after helping the authorities in the case.
Who is Jho Low, and where is he now?
The man mentioned in the very title of the documentary film, Jho Low, is even more elusive now than he was a decade ago, when he first emerged. It is not very clear as to how Jho Low became such a rich businessman or from where he got the wealth, although there are records of him having studied at premier institutions in the West. The man gained prominence because of his extravagant parties and his lavish lifestyle post-2010, when he would book the entirety of expensive clubs and casinos in the US—at one time even the Las Vegas strip—to celebrate achievements. Numerous Hollywood stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx, and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian attended these parties. It was later found out that all of these celebs were paid for their appearances, and without any doubt, this money came straight from the 1MDB fund.
Low spent lavishly on his lifestyle and clothes, buying expensive yachts and dating supermodels, for all of which he used the money that he stole from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund. The man, together with Najib Razak’s stepson, Riza Aziz, also opened a film production company in Hollywood, named Red Granite Pictures. In a twisted irony, Jho Low was one of the producers of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a film about corruption and embezzlement that happened to be produced with embezzled funds from 1MDB. When the scandal started to gain attention, and the authorities started investigating, Jho Low used all of his influence and resources to disappear, and the man is still a fugitive at present.
Back when Razak was facing the heat in Malaysia, it was claimed that Low was sailing around in his yacht, named Equanimity, somewhere in the Arctic Circle. After he was announced as one of the most wanted men in the world, there have been no reports of the man, and Jho Low is literally a man still on the run. However, some unofficial sources, as stated in Man on the Run, also predict that the man is most probably hiding in China, shuttling between the cities of Macau, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. But as China most definitely has something to benefit from Low, if the man is indeed in the country, the criminal mastermind being found any time soon seems quite improbable.