KUALA LUMPUR - Baby-faced playboy Jho Low, a financier at the center of Malaysia’s 1MDB mega-scandal, may find his days of hobnobbing with celebrities and splurging on property and art are numbered as the new government pledges to bring him to justice.
Suspected of being a key figure in one of the world’s biggest frauds along with ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cronies, the chubby, bespectacled businessman has become a lightning rod for public fury at the controversy.
He led a high-rolling lifestyle after allegedly stealing huge sums from 1MDB. He hung out with celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, partied with Paris Hilton, and reportedly spent vast sums in New York’s hottest nightspots.
As investigations into the controversy accelerated, the Malaysian took to a luxury yacht allegedly bought with stolen cash and sailed around Asia, until the vessel was seized off Bali recently as part of 1MDB-linked probes.
The Wall Street Journal reported that he was on the Thai holiday island of Phuket earlier this month awaiting the election results. His current whereabouts are unclear.
But time could be running out for the flamboyant 36-year-old after Najib’s scandal-mired coalition suffered a shock defeat at the May 9 poll in large part due to public anger at 1MDB.
The new government, headed by Najib’s ex-mentor Mahathir Mohamad, has reopened probes into the sophisticated fraud and wants to haul Jho Low — whose full name is Low Taek Jho — back to Malaysia.
Abdul Razak Idris, a former senior officer from the anti-graft agency, which led probes into the scandal until they were shut down under Najib, said he believed Low was the mastermind.
“He must be arrested and brought back to Malaysia so that we can bring back all the money parked abroad,” he said.
Low, who held no official positions at 1MDB but is believed to have exerted great influence over the fund, has previously denied any wrongdoing. He could not be contacted for this article.
In a first move aimed at pressuring him, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng on Friday instructed tax authorities to probe Low and his family — many of whom remain in Malaysia — over 1MDB.
Malaysian social media lit up with delight at the prospect that a man who allegedly plundered state coffers was now being aggressively pursued.
“Jho Low is the key to all this 1MDB debacle,” read one post on Facebook. “Catching him is like catching the one ring that rules them all.”
Low’s current precarious position is a far cry from the image he once projected of an urbane, well-connected investment manager.
He was educated at elite British school Harrow, and during his time in England befriended Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson, a friendship that helped him get close to Malaysia’s former ruling family.
He studied in the U.S. and moved to New York, where reports of his profligate spending began to multiply.
The Department of Justice, which has launched lawsuits to seize assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB cash in the U.S., alleges $400 million from the fund was sent to America “for the personal gratification of Low and his associates.”
This is just one part of the vast fraud. The DoJ claims that some $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund, which was set up in 2009 and overseen by Najib. Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
As well as the yacht, Low is alleged to have used stolen cash to buy artworks by Monet and Van Gogh, high-end real estate and to give gifts to celebrities including DiCaprio and Australian model Miranda Kerr.
They have both turned the gifts over to U.S. authorities and are not accused of any wrongdoing.
In a rare media interview with Malaysia’s Star newspaper in 2010, Low complained of being depicted as someone who led “an excessive kind of lifestyle.”
“Ultimately, I am Malaysian,” he said. “I am one who does not forget my country and I think there is a lot we can do for Malaysia.”