KUALA LUMPUR, May 19 — Former 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) chairman Tan Sri Mohd Bakke Salleh today confirmed that then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had his phone number, but that the latter had spoken via Low Taek Jho’s handphone to Bakke in September 2009 over a deal involving US$1 billion of 1MDB funds.
Bakke said this while testifying as the 15th prosecution witness in Najib’s trial over the misappropriation of more than RM2 billion of 1MDB funds.
The prosecution had previously said in this trial that it would prove that US$20 million, or more than RM60 million, from the US$1 billion sum had ended up in Najib’s account.
The 1MDB board of directors were first notified in a September 18, 2009 board meeting about the proposed joint venture with purported Saudi firm PetroSaudi International which would require 1MDB to put in US$1 billion, and had requested 1MDB management to do the necessary due diligence and to provide updates at the next board meeting on September 26, 2009.
But just before the 1MDB board meeting on September 26, 2009 could start, Low — better known as Jho Low and now a fugitive wanted in Malaysia — who was in the meeting room then passed his own handphone to Bakke by saying, "PM on the line, want to speak to you”.
Lead prosecutor Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram today asked about the phone call that was made.
Sri Ram: And the phone call that you received immediately before the meeting commenced, at the time when you spoke to Datuk Seri Najib the accused, on that occasion, did he have your number?
Bakke: Yeah, yeah, yes, he had my number.
Sri Ram: But the call came on whose phone?
Bakke: Jho Low’s phone.
Asked by Najib to quickly firm up a decision on the US$1 billion deal and having conveyed Najib’s instructions to expedite the matter to other 1MDB board members, Bakke previously said the 1MDB board decided on September 26 to unanimously agree to approve the deal following Najib’s instructions — despite the due diligence yet to be done by the 1MDB management.
The 1MDB board’s decision to approve the US$1 billion deal had also come with four conditions to safeguard the company’s funds and position, but these instructions were not followed.
Asked about the board meeting minutes on September 26, 2009 omitting mention of Najib’s phone call to Bakke before the meeting officially started, Bakke confirmed that the omission "insulated” Najib.
"We didn’t put it because we had discussed it and the agreement among board members, that we don’t want to put something in the minutes mentioning PM’s name, saying that he had instructed us to expedite the evaluation for the PetroSaudi proposal and not to look back at how the money was raised. So the board members felt it would not be the right item to be minuted, so that was the consensus among board members,” Bakke said.
Sri Ram: By not mentioning the PM’s name in the meeting minutes, who was insulated?
Bakke: Prime minister, because there’s a consensus about let’s not mention anything linked to the PM.
Previously, Bakke had explained that the 1MDB boards’ decision not to mention the phone call by Najib was also due to the call taking place before the September 26 meeting had officially started.
Earlier today, Najib’s lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah challenged Bakke’s view of Low being the representative of Najib in 1MDB matters.
But Bakke stood firm in maintaining his impression of Low being Najib’s representative.
When Bakke cited for example of how he had told Najib that Low had asked him to join 1MDB’s predecessor Terengganu Investment Authority’s (TIA) board and that Najib had said to “go ahead” and help, Shafee argued that this one occasion was limited only to helping out the Terengganu state government on TIA and that it could not be taken to mean that “Jho Low was always a person the PM has appointed to be his mouthpiece”.
Bakke then replied: “But there were a number of instances where things happened following discussion between Jho Low and the PM, brought to the attention of board members. Our appointments for example. And also in terms of work, take the need to fast-track the evaluation of the investment with PetroSaudi, Jho Low got into the picture by calling the PM’s telephone. The optics were very clear that he was there to coordinate and to also you know, connect things, to happen.”
Shafee then continued to challenge the idea that Low was Najib’s mouthpiece by hypothetically suggesting that he could have learnt a valuable information and told Bakke that the PM would be announcing it to deliver an impression that he was so close to the PM that the PM had informed him, arguing that Bakke had made an assumption that then prime minister Najib must have asked Low to deliver a message that Bakke would be appointed to 1MDB’s board.
But Bakke disagreed, saying: “I disagree, because there were a number of occasions where the actions of Jho Low certainly confirmed whatever impression I had. Certain points happened following the discussion between Jho Low and PM; the one that really caught our attention was that the PM chose to speak to me on a project after Jho Low called him, because of the optics. And then also meeting Jho Low at the PM’s office a number of times.”
Previously, Bakke said he had met Low several times at Najib’s office when the latter was still defence minister and subsequently deputy prime minister.
Confirming that there was no official notification given to him that Low was to represent Najib in 1MDB matters, Bakke however said that his impression of Low’s involvement with Najib had continued to be reinforced by such factors and also disagreed with Shafee’s suggestion that such an impression may not necessarily carry the true picture.
Asked why he had not directly asked Najib either through SMS, phone call or in their regular meetings every two weeks on Felda matters, to check if Low’s directions were actually from Najib, Bakke confirmed he could have done so but chose not to.
“In the case of 1MDB, I chose not to, because I had strong feeling that PM certainly had a role to play in whatever that happened. So for that reason, I wasn’t comfortable bringing up this matter,” Bakke said, agreeing with Shafee that he had never confirmed with Najib due to his feelings of discomfort.
Bakke had also explained today that he did not complain about irregularities in 1MDB’s US$1 billion deal in 2009 directly to then prime minister Najib, as his complaint would be about his suspicion of Najib himself.
Najib’s 1MDB trial before High Court judge Datuk Collin Lawrence Sequerah resumes June 7.