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IE Insights: Case Study – 1MDB Scandal

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal is a paradigm of political corruption and financial malfeasance that gripped Malaysia and grabbed international headlines. It’s a cautionary tale of misuse of power for personal gains, overshadowing the larger goals of national growth and development.

Origins of 1MDB

1MDB was established in 2009 by the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, purportedly to drive strategic initiatives for long-term sustainable economic development. It was presented as a sovereign wealth fund, aiming to promote foreign investment and partnerships. However, what emerged in the following years painted a grim picture of corruption and economic mismanagement.

Financial Misconduct

The scandal began to unravel in 2015 when investigative journalists alleged that nearly $700 million had been diverted into Najib’s personal bank accounts. The fund, which had racked up around $11 billion in debt, was accused of corruption and money laundering. Reports suggested that large sums of money were siphoned off to finance extravagant lifestyles, purchase luxury estates, artworks, and even to fund the production of Hollywood films.

Major Players

Besides Najib, another key figure in this scandal was Jho Low, a Malaysian financier. Low, without holding any official position in 1MDB, was instrumental in making decisions for the fund. His close association with Najib and his family raised eyebrows. The stolen money reportedly financed his lavish lifestyle, including the acquisition of super-yachts and multimillion-dollar properties.

Investigations and Prosecutions

The allegations sparked global investigations across several countries, including the United States, Switzerland, and Singapore. In 2016, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking to recover over $1 billion associated with the fund.

In 2018, Najib lost the general election, largely attributed to public outrage over the 1MDB scandal. Subsequently, he was arrested and charged with abuse of power, breach of trust, and money laundering. In 2020, he was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined $49 million.

Meanwhile, Jho Low remains a fugitive, maintaining his innocence despite the mounting evidence against him.


The 1MDB scandal inflicted severe damage on Malaysia’s economy and international reputation. The large debt burden shook investor confidence, depreciating the value of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit. The scandal also highlighted the lack of regulatory oversight, weak governance, and systemic corruption in Malaysia.


The 1MDB case underscores the importance of transparency, accountability, and strong governance in public institutions. It’s a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked power and the perils of financial mismanagement.

Moreover, it has led to renewed emphasis on international cooperation to prevent cross-border corruption and money laundering. It underscored the need for banking institutions to have strong “Know Your Customer” (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) practices.


The 1MDB scandal stands as one of the most significant financial frauds in history, revealing the lengths to which individuals in positions of power can exploit for personal gain. The aftermath of the scandal led to critical introspection and has started to bring about important changes in regulatory and institutional frameworks, not just in Malaysia, but also globally.