KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 — Flamboyant businessman Low Taek Jho's role in 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was kept low-profile in order to protect then Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak's position in the political party due to envious party members, the High Court heard today.
Datuk Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmi, who was 1MDB CEO from late 2009 to March 2013, acknowledged that Low's role in the fund was initially not a problem.
Low had an official role from April 2009 as an adviser of 1MDB's predecessor Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA) Berhad, but was alleged to later be conveying purported instructions from Najib on 1MDB affairs for Shahrol to execute. This was despite Low not being a 1MDB employee.
Explaining why efforts were later made to keep Low's role in 1MDB under low profile, Shahrol said that Low had asked him to do so to secure Najib's Umno position.
“It started becoming a problem when Datuk Seri Najib become sole stakeholder and shareholder in 1MDB, and there were a lot of I guess perasaan dengki (feelings of jealousy), people within Umno had over Jho Low's influence and access to Datuk Seri Najib.
“So that was when it made sense to me when Jho told me that his involvement needs to be kept low key and as to not menggugatkan (threaten) Datuk Seri Najib's position in Umno. So that was the framing from 2010 onwards and I had accepted the explanation,” he said during Najib's corruption trial involving 1MBD funds.
Najib was then the finance minister and had signed off on 1MDB-linked documents for the Finance Ministry's Minister of Finance Incorporated (MOF Inc), which was the sole owner of 1MDB.
When Najib's lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah argued that there was no need to do so when the whole world allegedly knew of Low's involvement in 1MDB, Shahrol pointed out that Low's role was not well known then.
“I would disagree on that because the context and environment was different in 2009, 2010... Very few people knew he was assisting Datuk Seri Najib in closing these deals. Very few people knew Jho Low was playing a big role in Datuk Seri Najib's relationships with the Saudis, the Abu Dhabians, even the Chinese at that time,” Shahrol said.
Earlier, Shahrol confirmed that Low had attended a 1MDB board meeting in September 2009 to explain a deal between 1MDB and PetroSaudi International, noting that Low's role did not have to be kept a secret from the board but from the public.
When questioned how it would be ensured that all 1MDB board members kept their “mouth shut” about Low, Shahrol replied: “I don't know, the board also has a responsibility, they also feel they have a need to protect the boss and I'm sure you can count on them to keep their mouths shut.”
Shafee: What was the problem of having Jho Low openly involved in 1MDB. He did that in TIA, so what's the problem with having Jho Low having open active involvement in 1MDB? Has he got some kind of infectious diseases that he cannot attend?
Shahrol: I asked him the same question early on and his answer was that the optics politically would be bad for Datuk Seri Najib, that's what Jho told me.
When asked by Shafee, Shahrol agreed that it would have looked bad for Najib as Low is of Chinese ethnicity.
Why the secrecy and documents destructions
Shahrol spoke of how Low had insisted on secure communications on 1MDB matters to protect Najib who was described as “boss”, believing that Low's insistence was to avoid their communications from being tapped.
“He (Low) prefers to use BBM because it is kinda secure. Ever since what he terms as political attacks intensified in 2014 onwards, he would use BBM. And for voice calls, he would use Skype once or twice, but never through the normal channels. His excuse was that we don't know who we can trust, we gotta protect the boss, keep it secure,” Shahrol said, referring to the popular secure texting service Blackberry Messenger (BBM).
Shahrol noted that 1MDB employees were all using BBM on company-issued Blackberry phones then.
Shahrol confirmed today that he had deleted chats and email exchanges with Low on 1MDB affairs, after Low asked him to delete all records of their electronic communications due to alleged political attacks against Najib and the need to protect Najib.
“The instruction to delete everything including chats came after I left 1MDB already. In the early years, I would keep some of the conversations on the phone itself, but when I sold the phone obviously I deleted everything,” Shahrol said, adding that he would by default shred all documents after handling them except for official documents kept by 1MDB.
Shahrol also clarified that all official emails involving 1MDB are kept securely by the company, and that the emails deleted were only those using his own personal email address when Low communicated with him.
When asked about the talking points provided by Low on 1MDB matters, Shahrol said most of these documents were destroyed on Low's instructions, but pointed out that the content of these talking points had already been preserved and replicated in official 1MDB documents.
Shahrol said the talking points were presented by Low as purportedly having content that had been agreed to by “the boss” which was Low's usual label for Najib, and that these talking points were not official documents.
“The contents of the talking points were then reflected in official documents such as Chairman of Board of Advisers minutes as well as the Directors' Resolution and meeting minutes...So it's not like those contents are lost, those are documented in official company documentation,” he said.
Shafee then asked Shahrol about the need for secrecy and to destroy the talking points over alleged political attacks, when the talking points' contents were reduced into meeting minutes.
“The political attack was that Jho was behind the scenes instructing certain decisions to be made, so the political attack was that Datuk Seri Najib was in the know and had asked Jho to instruct me specifically — because I have first-hand knowledge of the details of the transactions — so that is the part where as I understand it, why Jho wanted me to destroy those emails,” Shahrol replied, confirming that he believed both Low and Najib did not want it to be known that Low was playing a role in 1MDB.
The prosecution on Day One had said it would prove how millions of US dollars belonging to 1MDB were diverted to accounts controlled by Low before being channelled allegedly to Najib.
Tomorrow, Shafee will continue to cross-examine Shahrol, who is the ninth prosecution witness against Najib.
Najib's ongoing 1MDB trial involves 25 criminal charges — four counts of abusing his position for his own financial benefit totalling almost RM2.3 billion allegedly originating from 1MDB and the resulting 21 counts of money-laundering.