The lowdown on: Jho Low

Azril Annuar
Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin today accused Low of being one of the ‘main criminals’ in the 1MDB case. — Picture via Facebook

KUALA LUMPUR, June 7 — The New York Post once dubbed this Malaysian financier as “the mystery man of city club scene”, while a local daily called him an “international man of mystery”.

Lately, however, Low Taek Jho, or better known as Jho Low, has achieved infamy for alleged links to the scandal-laden sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin today accused Low of being one of the “main criminals” in the case.

But who is the man behind the name Jho Low? Where is he from? How did he achieve his wealth and end up on multiple wanted lista globally due to his ties with what could be the world’s biggest money-laundering case?

Early life and education

Born in Penang in 1981, Low grew up in the state capital of George Town. He attended SJKC Union in Burma Road before studying in Chung Ling High School, and later the International School of Penang (Uplands).

During his teens, Low was sent to the elite Harrow School in London. It was in these hallowed halls that he first met, and then developed a close friendship with Riza Aziz, the stepson of ousted prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Upon graduation, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School in the United States. Here, Low had the foresight to continue forging friendships and developing connections with the Malaysian elite, as well as Middle Eastern interests.

A millionaire before graduation

In 2010, a local English daily reported that when Low was just 20 years old, he had already made his first (US$) million-dollar deal.

He reportedly took a semester off from Wharton to set up an investment fund that was worth in excess of RM3.19 billion in 2010.

Known as The Wynton Group, the fund began with a capital of US$25 million (RM79.7 million) injected by his family and nine investors who were his schoolmates and their family.

Under Wynton, Low made the first big transaction of his career in 2006. He helped Kuwait Finance House purchase luxury apartment building The Oval in Kuala Lumpur for US$87 million.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Low claimed the Kuwaiti bank made a handsome profit of US$20 million when it sold the building, less than two years later.

However, Low himself came from a monied family. The New York Times reported that Low came from a “deflated affluent family” while WSJ said he was the scion of a wealthy Asian family worth around US$1.75 billion.

His grandfather Low Meng Tak was a businessman who was born in Guangdong China.

The elder Low’s business interests included iron-ore mining, liquor distilleries as well as real estate in China and Thailand from the 1960s to the 1970s. Low’s father Datuk Larry Low, on the other hand is the founder of engineering firm, MWE Holdings Bhd.

Later, in his career, the baby-faced Jho Low established the Jynwel Capital (Jynwel) investment firm. Using this firm as his vehicle, Low closed multiple high-profile deals, including the acquisition of New York’s Park Lane Hotel for US$660 million in 2013 with The Witkoff Group and Mubadala.

Other deals that he was involved in included the takeover of Coastal Energy in 2014 for US$2.2 billion and the buyout of EMI’s music publishing business in 2012 for US$2.2 billion with the Blackstone Group, Sony Corporation and Mubadala.

Jynwel is the company that the Financial Times reported as having ties with the debt-ridden 1MDB.

Background of 1MDB

Low became a friend to ex-PM Najib’s family through the latter’s stepson, Riza Aziz, whom he met while studying in London.

Although he never had an official position in 1MDB, Low has admitted that he occasionally “consulted” with 1MDB and was involved in a number of transactions when his own interests crossed paths with that of the sovereign wealth fund.

Low was originally a special advisor to 1MDB’s first incarnation — Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA). At first, TIA was a sovereign wealth fund worth RM11 billion and was supposed to ensure Terengganu’s long-term sustainable economic development.

Its funds came from an outstanding royalty income worth RM6 billion as well as funds from bonds issued by local and overseas financial markets. The Malaysian government had also proposed a guarantee of RM5 billion based on the state’s future oil revenues.

On May 27, 2009, Low advised the fund to sign a deal arranged by AmInvestment Bank Bhd to raise RM5 billion via the issuance of Islamic medium-term notes (IMTNs). However, the Terengganu state government had disagreed to the deal.

Despite the government’s disapproval, the deal proceeded and two days later on May 29, TIA raked in RM4.385 billion in net proceeds from IMTN from the full value of RM5 billion.

Later that year, on July 31, Minister of Finance (Incorporated) took over TIA and amended its name to 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). It was four months after Najib had been sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister.

Najib had earlier announced that the decision to expand the state’s sovereign wealth fund into a federal entity was to ensure that it can benefit all Malaysians, instead of just Terengganu.

Later, despite Low’s denial that he had anything to do with 1MDB, British-based online portal, The Sarawak Report, alleged that Low and Riza had siphoned US$700 million from a joint-venture deal between 1MDB and PetroSaudi International through Good Star Ltd.

A leaked email revealed that Najib had granted Low the loan approval without Bank Negara’s nod.

The number of charges against 1MDB

The 1MDB scandal is of such magnitude that nine countries have begun investigations into the issue.

The FBI launched an investigation into 1MDB in 2015. In 2016, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil lawsuit against 1MDB.

The suit alleged that “Malaysian Official 1” (whom then-minister in Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan said was Najib) had received RM2.797 billion of stolen 1MDB money through Singapore’s Falcon Bank on March 21, 2013 and March 25, 2013.

In June 2017, the DOJ seized more than US$1 billion from people close to Najib and 1MDB, including assets such as high-end properties in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, New York and London.

Other assets seized included fine artwork, a private jet, a luxury yacht and royalties from the film Wolf of Wall Street and its production company Red Granite Pictures.

Red Granite is owned by Riza and had agreed to a US$60 million out-of-court settlement with the US government.

Closer to home, Singapore’s Monetary Authority and its Commercial Affairs Department had already frozen a number of bank accounts there for possible money-laundering offences related to 1MDB’s financial mismanagement.

Low’s accounts were among those frozen, besides SRC International, Aabar Investment PJS Limited and 1MDB Global Investments Ltd.

In Switzerland, the Attorney General’s Office froze bank accounts linked to 1MDB in 2015. Its investigations found indications of funds estimated at US$4 billion may have been misappropriated and said there are four cases of potential criminal conduct.

That same year also saw Hong Kong police opening investigations regarding US$250 million in Credit Suisse branch deposits in Hong Kong linked to Najib and 1MDB.

In the United Kingdom, the Serious Fraud Office started investigations in 2016 into the transfer of money from 1MDB funds in Malaysia to Switzerland as it involved Royal Bank of Scotland’s branch in Zurich.

Other global authorities that opened their own investigations into the 1MDB issue include Luxembourg, the UAE and Seychelles.

Today, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) announced it is looking for Low over its probe into one of 1MDB’s subsidiaries — SRC International Bhd.

Low’s lawyer has said he will assist with the probe and has instructed him to contact the commission.