Clare Rewcastle Brown is public enemy number one of the Malaysian state. But she isn't bothered. The investigative journalist just laughs at the irony. Her father was head of special branch in what is Malaysia today when it was still a British colony. Now his daughter is their prime target.
From London, Brown, 56, runs two independent news outlets focused on exposing political and financial corruption in Malaysia. Sarawak Report is a blog and Radio Free Sarawak broadcasts on the south-east Asian airwaves. After a career as a BBC and ITV journalist, and her children having grown older, she had more free time. So she founded these two outlets, first the blog then the radio station. But why Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo? That's where Brown was born and spent her early childhood before moving out of the region, aged eight.
She is now the focus of smear campaigns, arrest warrants, and email hacking by the Malaysian authorities after her relentless campaign of exposés of the 1MDB scandal, a swamp of corruption and fraud allegations swallowing Prime Minister Najib Razak, PetroSaudi, Abu Dhabi, billionaire Malaysian financier Jho Low, Goldman Sachs, and the Queen of England's bank Coutts, among others. All parties involved deny any wrongdoing and reject allegations of fraud and corruption.
It's all about being the richest and the biggest
In a nutshell, the scandal is this: 1MDB is a Malaysian public development fund. To load the fund with capital, bonds – i.e. debt – were issued to investors. That money was then to be used for infrastructure projects and anything that might improve economic growth in Malaysia. But money might have gone missing from 1MDB, perhaps stolen, in transactions facilitated by western banks.
Some of that money may have ended up in Najib's personal bank account – $700m (£488bn, €630bn) of it, in fact – via a payment from PetroSaudi. Najib says the money has nothing to do with 1MDB or PetroSaudi and is an unrelated political donation from Saudi royals, which he has not benefited from personally and has now returned. This is just one element of the scandal's complex tangle, doggedly uncovered by Brown and her colleagues, and picked up in the media across the world.
So credible and serious are the allegations that financial regulators and fraud authorities have opened investigations in Britain, the US and Switzerland. The Swiss Attorney General believes $4bn has been stolen from 1MDB. An investigation by a Malaysian anti-corruption commission, however, cleared Najib. "Najib is so corrupt," Brown tells IBTimes UK. "He's been in government since he was 23. His dad was prime minister. He thinks it's all about being the richest and the biggest... If you want to be in charge, you've got to be the richest guy on the block."
Najib, who was educated at the exclusive private school Malvern College and then the University of Nottingham "has this veneer of being this public schoolboy and people fall for it," Brown says. "They think he is this nice, posh, English gentleman. Obama thinks he's lovely. But in fact, the more you find out about him... he's a thoroughly corrupted man."
Sarawak Report started out focusing on the rights of indigenous people in the Borneo jungle who were being forced out by, Brown says, by aggressive loggers and a corrupt local government. Their jungle lands on which they relied to survive were being torn up in an orgy of wanton ecological destruction in one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. These people were being starved out, says Brown.
After a visit to Malaysia while Brown was still a BBC journalist, to attend "what turned out to be a pretty bogus media and the environment conference", she got speaking to locals, journalists and NGOs about the deforestation in Borneo, and rumours of a money trail allegedly leading back to the Sarawak chief minister, Taib Mahmud, "an awful potentate there who'd been in place for 30 years, and before that it was his uncle," Brown says. The state controls who gets the logging licences. So, Brown says, the logging companies give kickbacks to enrich state officials, who then hand out the licences. And Mahmud was at the top of the pile, claims Brown, growing wealthier by the week.
"It was like somebody having control of the Amazon," Brown says. "But what became fascinating was these same companies then, because they made so much money out of destroying Borneo, and because they were controlled by him ultimately, they were then exporting their model.
"NGOs around the world are coming up against these Sarawak Malaysian logging companies, run by Chinese entrepreneurs local to Sarawak, who are destroying Papua, they're into the Congo big-time, they're into the Amazon – they're everywhere. The business model is [to] corrupt the local political leader and start getting your contracts. They have so much money from their initial rape of Sarawak that they're ahead of the game everywhere. They're a global menace, unrestrained in their tactics and greed... Everyone I spoke to was telling me how incredibly rich the head of state was there, and saw endless stories coming out, and thought hey, why isn't anyone doing this? Why isn't anyone writing about it? And of course the answer came back that Malaysia has been a hidden dictatorship for a very long time, the media is very heavily controlled, nobody can do anything without a licence, and you don't get a licence unless you're a pal of the guys in charge, etc."
All these issues "really p***ed me off," Brown says, "and I discovered the internet. I thought, if nothing else, I'll join the debate because it's all taking place in English and there seemed to be a lot of people there who were very concerned but not really very professional at articulating the issues, and so were fairly ineffective." Brown says she used her journalistic skills– "i.e. if you're going to say something and attack somebody you have your back-up evidence" – to make her writing harder-hitting than the authorities were used to, because "I was making it quite hard for them to brush it aside" by gathering evidence and corroborating her stories.
To reach the jungle tribes, who didn't have easy access to the internet, Brown expanded and set up Radio Free Sarawak so they could hear what was going on for themselves. "I just found myself going on and on because I was trying to get to the root of the corruption and shake someone into doing something about it. So the next step was central corruption, federal level," Brown says.
Then, in 2013, there were rumblings about 1MDB. "So I asked around, sniffed around, and I gathered there was this material out there and it took me six months, but I persuaded Xavier Justo to part with it in the end, which is another story, and the poor guy is still in jail."
Justo, a Swiss national and former employee of PetroSaudi, leaked information on a deal between the company and 1MDB to Brown. Now he is in jail in Thailand, where he was convicted of attempted corporate blackmail. Brown, who has hundreds of thousands of emails and documents that have been leaked by a number of different sources, says he is a whistle-blower.
Western facilitators of a Third World tragedy
There is an arrest warrant out for Brown in Malaysia. First the Malaysian authorities accused her of lying. Now they say she is spilling state secrets. As far as she is aware, the latest charge against her is "activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy". Sarawak Report has been blocked in Malaysia since Brown started going after Najib. When the Malaysian police appealed for Brown to be placed on Interpol's most-wanted list, Interpol "told them to take a hike". But Brown shrugs it off, calling herself a veteran.
When she was pursuing Mahmud in the mid-2000s, British and American PR people were hired by the Malaysian government to discredit her. One, the now-defunct FBC Media, was a hybrid PR and television production company, which helped covertly place high-quality propaganda in the broadcast media, including the BBC, in deals exposed by Sarawak Report and The Independent newspaper. A right-wing Texan blogger was also hired to set up websites criticising Sarawak Report and Brown.
"The reason I find this such a fascinating story is that all the facilitators in this Third World tragedy have been British and American and Swiss, largely, companies. Bankers, lawyers and biddable PR companies," Brown says. "At the moment I don't know who is running Najib's ops against me but they are focusing on abusing Facebook's sponsored content – quite a few sites, including sites called Open Source Investigations and Sarawak Report Exposed. There was another called The Real Clare Rewcastle, but they pulled that when The Independent ran a story about how they used fake Twitter and Facebook characters (including dead heroes) to defame me."
Brown says she is "not going to Malaysia in a hurry. But I sometimes look at it and I think, 'Oh God' – and there are plenty of people who are saying this to me, they're British businessmen, and they say: 'Oh Clare, you're just going in there like an elephant, you have to be delicate, you've made things worse, look at how he's cracked down' – and I thought, you know what? He's shown his claws. It was always there and we've exposed the lie. I'm not going to buy this that we should have let him off. He has been cracking down. He brought in this so-called 'emergency terror legislation' which will give him total power. It'll give him martial law powers the moment he decides to click his fingers and implement them."
An interesting tangent to the story is that Brown's husband, Andrew, a PR executive for EDF Energy, is the brother of Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister of Britain. Najib has run the Malaysian finance ministry for years, and became prime minister while Brown was Britain's premier. The pair have had dealings. So what does her brother-in-law make of all this?
"I've not asked him to reflect on Najib. I think he's certainly shocked at what we've uncovered, the level of corruption," she says. "Part of this whole story is how could these deals happen? How could it have gone through the international banking system? And the answer is, deals like this are going through the international banking system all the time. Certainly these banks have been caught turning a blind eye and letting it happen... It's shocking corruption and he is duly shocked."
Brown is glad she has been able to get these stories out, especially the unfolding 1MDB scandal. "Najib had so many cards in his hand. He was a favoured leader that both Britain and America felt they had someone they could do business with, in this strategic country," she says, citing Najib's willingness to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being pushed by the Americans. Now the investigations have started, including one by the UK's Serious Fraud Office, the scandal has slipped out of Malaysia's borders and Najib's grasp. "Even if he cracks down locally, he's not going to be able to hide this internationally," Brown says. "I would like to think they can get rid of him because he's not a good guy."