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A scandal of corruption and censorship: Uncovering the 1MDB case in Malaysia

Article by Clare Rewcastle Brown

December 9, 2020

A scandal of corruption and censorship: Uncovering the 1MDB case in Malaysia

Those wishing to pursue legal action against me in 2017 were advised, according to someone involved in the conversations, that for an outlay of no more than £200,000 I could be forced to issue the sort of retraction that could be spun into a total discrediting of myself and my wider reporting on corruption in Malaysia.


The logic was clear. I am a freelance journalist living in London who had uncovered one of the world’s largest financial scandals known as 1MDB, which was at the time threatening to bring down the Malaysian government, due to face elections in May 2018, then a few months away. The Prime Minister of the day, Najib Razak, has now been convicted of the first seven of some 42 charges related to 1MDB and so already faces 12 years imprisonment with further cases underway. At the time, he was strongly motivated to discredit me in the run up to the election to protect himself from just such an outcome by gaining victory.


Of course, it was not Najib who sued me. The Prime Minister could not afford to be cross-examined over 1MDB and the other corruption matters I had reported on in a London court, because the evidence was overwhelming and had by then also been laid out in detail by the FBI. However, he had secret political allies in the form of the opposition PAS Islamic Party whose new leaders had agreed to work with him with a view to forming a coalition once the election was over. The dynamics of that alliance had become overwhelmingly obvious to observers such as myself and I had referred in an article to the large sums of money that senior sources in Malaysia suspected were being channelled at that time into the ‘upper echelons’ of this party order to smooth the secret relationship.[1] Voters were being kept unaware of the controversial collusion, given it followed decades of rivalry between the two parties.


One of the prime movers in that covert relationship, a former Deputy President of PAS, has now also been charged in Malaysia for his alleged criminal breach of trust fronting a supposed Islamic charity, which was being funded by Najib to the tune of millions. My article had mentioned no names but focused on the public interest concern that a blatantly corrupt Prime Minister was plainly ‘wooing’ a political party with cash although it was still purporting to its supporters to be part of the opposition movement.


To facilitate the litigation, Carter Ruck of London constructed an argument that I had implied without saying it that the money had gone directly to the personal use of the actual President of the PAS, who was not named in the article and had only been referred to once before on my platform by a separate writer some months previously. After all, a libel case requires an individual whose reputation is alleged to have been besmirched. The point of this case, as my inside informants had confirmed, was to put me under financial pressure and to force me to settle with an apology, which could then be broadcast as an admission in the Malaysian media before the election that I was a politically motivated liar who had produced a farrago of falsehoods relating to the Prime Minster and 1MDB. Indeed, from the moment it was launched the case was used as a relentless propaganda tool against me in just this manner, leaking privileged information and alleging that judgements had already been arrived at against me.


As anticipated, the attack was financially devastating. I was to lose my savings and my pension defending the case, despite the generous tens of thousands of pounds raised by huge numbers of well-wishers across Malaysia who contributed what they could to my defence. The miscalculation was that I would as a consequence buckle at a time when the truth of my reporting was being strengthened by further evidence each day that passed. Given the importance of the issue to the entire future of a nation about to see its first ever peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, I refused to be bullied into the expected settlement and the Carter Ruck bill clocked upwards well past the million mark (to the annoyance of the litigants who had understood that I would be dealt with more cheaply).


Najib lost the election in May 2018 and proceedings began against him. Meanwhile, his remaining UMNO party promptly entered into the coalition with PAS that I had reported was secretly underway and which had in turn prompted this very libel suit.[2] I moreover obtained hard evidence of financial transfers from UMNO to PAS as well as recordings and documents, which confirmed my reference to the collusion between the parties.[3]


It was therefore entirely unsurprising that as the trial loomed near in early 2019 emissaries from PAS reached out to me and a settlement was arrived at, which involved no retractions on my part and a hefty contribution to my legal costs.[4] Carter Ruck was side-lined from these negotiations until the final stages, when their Malaysian clients instructed them to pull the case in London. By then PAS’s London legal bills had reached well in excess of one and a half million pounds in return for a well-deserved public humiliation. Back in Kuala Lumpur the PAS President justified his climb-down to the local media acknowledging his lawsuit had been politically motivated from the start and that since it had now served his party’s purpose in the elections he had decided to withdraw. What more damning indictment could there be of a self-admitted SLAPP suit?[5]


Nevertheless, the odds had been on a different outcome. A less committed journalist and indeed most news organisations, which face dozens of these sorts of SLAPP suits every year, would most likely have buckled at the start as the plaintiffs’ lawyers had clearly anticipated I would do – Malaysia is a long way away from what most London readers care about and the costs of defending public interest journalism have become prohibitive thanks to these sorts of cases which flourish in the London courts.


The aforementioned is just one example of the raft of legal threats I continue to face, like other freelance and investigative journalists who are seeking to alert the global community to criminality and corruption that threaten law and order and the democratic process not only in vulnerable emerging nations but also in our own, despite supposedly more robust institutions. The growth industry known as ‘reputation management’ involves a web of largely UK-based facilitators acting together to protect some of the world’s most powerful, wealthy and dangerous individuals from rightful scrutiny and discovery by our free media.


At the pinnacle are a clutch of specialist law firms whose relationships with such clients are legally privileged who operate in combination with a network of public relations consultants, corporate investigators and private protection agencies hired to wage war on journalists in particular. I have been targeted by all these groups of ‘professionals’ in my capacity as a London-based journalist who has annoyed foreign crooks. I have found myself under surveillance, been computer hacked, stalked, intimidated, sued and made the subject of numerous attempts at entrapment designed to compromise my reputation for integrity.


Websites have been constructed by PR agents in London purporting to be based in Malaysia, again dedicated to attacking my honesty and reputation.[6] Networks of writers in the US have been engaged to characterise my fact based, anti-corruption exposes as some form of aggressive ‘socialism’ based on lies.[7] The contracts funding these exercises in deception have been worth tens of millions to companies such as Bell Pottinger and FBC Media (both now folded following exposure), whilst numerous law firms have engaged in various gradations of legal threats against me – a single ‘Letter Before Action’ is worth thousands of pounds to the law firm and if a writ is served the meter really starts ticking for their client and their target.[8]


When in 2018, I sought to publish a book about my investigations into 1MDB – long after Najib’s key financial fixer, Jho Low, had become an international fugitive facing multiple warrants for his arrest – yet another prominent UK libel law firm, Schillings, contacted my publisher on the fraudster’s behalf to threaten proceedings not only against them but also every bookshop in the UK that carried the book. This was in anticipation of an account that would be unflattering to their client and therefore, they said, prejudicial to his chances in any of the courts of law that he was seeking to avoid.


A similar threat was issued against a separate book about Jho Low written by two Wall Street Journal journalists and even their major publisher, the US publishing giant Hachette, duly withdrew from releasing the book in the UK until my allegations had remained uncontested for a year. I was thus forced to self-publish and defy this further example of the blatant abuse of British libel law to protect a world class crook hiding in China and more wealthy and powerful institutions than myself, who were reluctant to risk the financial consequences of standing up to him.


It deeply concerns me that truthful reporting in the public interest is being so effectively undermined by the lack of restraints on this industry. Journalists already face huge hurdles when they challenge influential figures, and inevitably imperfections can arise in the coverage of matters which powerful forces want hidden. This should be taken into account and only malicious and recklessly negligent reporting should be open to prosecution, because the public interest is at stake. Presently, the bar is set far too low.


The case constructed on behalf of PAS was a classic of the genre, in that it was an artificial contrivance designed to suggest that a foreign politician whose name had not been mentioned in the article concerned had been besmirched in the UK where his identity was barely known. My legal advisors were certain such a case would not withstand the full judicial process and that my defences were clear. However, that was not the object.


At an early point in the trial, the judge questioned if the plaintiffs would appeal if he struck out half their case. The counsel hired by Carter Ruck leapt to assure the judge that his clients would indeed contest any early dismissal of their case, at which the judge turned towards the court and explained it would be cheaper to therefore pursue the entire case from High Court to Appeal Court to Supreme Court – several millions of pounds worth of litigation which wealthy crooks seeking to avoid exposure can and do regularly treat as a necessary business expense to game our systems, but which journalists and news organisations cannot afford to counter.


One of my own lawyers put it this way: “you have truth on your side, but they have the money. That puts you in by far the weaker position the way our laws are presently constructed.” If we want to maintain our democracies and indeed support those striving for democracy elsewhere, we need to curtail this overwhelming advantage to the deep pocketed litigant in our libel courts and strengthen the position of journalists trying to do the job we need them to do to protect our systems and shed light on infamy.


SLAPP cases need to be identified and thrown out early on. Failure to do so has given rise to a corrosive abuse of our systems by often foreign litigants who all too frequently barely even possess a reputation to protect in this country. It has become a dangerous weapon against free speech, accountability, transparency and the rule of law not just in this country, but across the world.


Clare Rewcastle Brown is a UK investigative journalist, born in Sarawak Malaysia. In 2010, Rewcastle Brown founded The Sarawak Report ( and its sister organisation Radio Free Sarawak. The Sarawak Report has been heralded for its “impact on the political debate” in Malaysia, with the New York Times calling Rewcastle-Brown “one of the most effective voices calling attention to deforestation in Malaysia”. In 2015, Sarawak Report was recognized by the Index on Censorship for being a “champion against censorship”. Radio Free Sarawak has won the IPI International Press Institute’s Free Media Pioneers Award 2013 and the Communication for Social Change Award 2014. Rewcastle Brown’s reporting has been at the forefront of exposing the corruption related to Malaysia’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). 


Image by Firdaus Latif under (CC).


[1] As Najib Denies All Over 1MBD, Let’s Not Forget His Many Other Criminal Connections – COMMENT, Sarawak Report, August 2016,

[2] Shannon Teoh, Malaysian parties Umno and PAS sign unity pact, The Straits Times, September 2019,

[3] PAS Needs To Own Up Over It’s New Multi-Million Ringgit Cash Donors, Sarawak Report, April 2018,

[4] How Hadi Contradicted Himself And PAS Officials During Court Case, Sarawak Report, February 2019,

[5] Emmanuel Santa Maria Chin, Hadi claims told to bin suit against Sarawak Report over RM90m claim, Malay Mail, March 2019,; Hadi Admits Case Was “Political” – No Longers Cares To Fight For His ‘Reputation’ In UK, Sarawak Report, March 2019,

[6] David Pegg, Melanie Newman and Oliver Wright, The arms company, the oligarch and the ex-PM’s sister-in-law: lobby firm’s Wikipedia hit list, Independent, December 2011,; Ian Burrell, Dead people’s identities ‘stolen’ for fake Twitter accounts to smear journalist, Independent, November 2015,

[7] Ian Burrell, Comment isn’t free when the bloggers have a hidden (and lucrative) agenda, Independent, September 2012,; Malaysia’s Poison Blogger Exposed In The US!, Sarawak Report, August 2012,

[8] Ed Caesar, The reputation-laundering firm that ruined its own reputation, New Yorker, July 2018,

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