The woman who uncovered 1MDB says it’s changed far more than Malaysia

The speakers at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Clare Rewcastle Brown is third from left.
The speakers at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Clare Rewcastle Brown is third from left.
Image: Alice Truong/Quartz
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As she broke the story about Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, Clare Rewcastle Brown was the target of a state-orchestrated propaganda campaign.

“Fake news was manufactured to the tune of millions of dollars in an attempt to discredit my story,” the investigative journalist said today (Nov. 10) in Taipei at the Oslo Freedom Forum. But when people went to the polls in May, “a tsunami of voters brought on a new reforming democratic government in Malaysia, a welcome new progressive neighbor in the region for Taiwan.”

In a strong symbolic gesture, the Human Rights Foundation, which runs the forum, chose Taiwan for the event’s Asian debut to show democracy and human rights “are not Western values,” said Alex Gladstein, the organization’s chief strategy officer. Its timing also comes ahead of a referendum in the territory later this month, in which voters will decide, among other issues, on the legality of same-sex marriage.

Awareness of state corruption helped Malaysians vote out prime minister Najib Razak and oust the ruling coalition for the first time since its independence in 1957. Since then, the number of charges against Najib and his cronies have piled up—totaling 38 for the former leader alone by late October.

“It’s not just regime change that this scandal has achieved,” said Rewcastle Brown, who founded Sarawak Report. Instead, she realized the corruption in Malaysia was “emblematic of what’s going on all over the planet”—all facilitated by an offshore system that “enables huge amounts of global wealth to be redistributed without being able to hold local kleptocrats to account.”

Aside from individuals like Najib and Jho Low—the at-large Malaysian financier who allegedly siphoned billions from the fund to, among other things, party with celebrities—another big player was the global financial system that facilitated the alleged theft.

She says Western professionals “under the guise” of bankers, offshore incorporators, media specialists, investors, and others are helping corrupt individuals “get their money from the scene of the crime, funnel it through the offshore system, and into developed economies.”

The US Department of Justice is currently investigating Goldman Sachs’s role in the scandal. Just yesterday (Nov. 9), unsealed court documents revealed former Goldman banker Tim Leissner said in his guilty plea that his conspiring to keep the company’s compliance and legal departments from discovering kickbacks and bribes was “very much in line” (paywall) with the bank’s culture.

Also yesterday, the Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported former Goldman chief executive Lloyd Blankfein had attended two meetings with Low.

“What the department of Justice indictment says is many more people in the bank were aware of this, and there was a culture in the bank that was aiding kleptocracy in Malaysia,” says Rewcastle Brown. “One wonders how many other banks will be held accountable for this and other such scandals.”