By Brian Martin
It was a psychological victory. When a 1-billion-plus ringgit (Bt8 billion) superyacht sailed into Port Klang waters last Tuesday, it marked a turning point in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd saga that has fascinated not only the country but the world since 2012.
Fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho or Jho Low is waging a legal battle (even though he’s still at large) with Malaysia over the seizure of Equanimity although the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) insists the confiscation was done in accordance with Malaysian law.
And yes, it looks like it’s going to be a long-drawn-out court battle, but Tuesday was significant because it also marked the day when the Malaysian government first seized an object or item allegedly bought using 1MDB-related funds, as identified by the United States Department of Justice (DoJ).
The Malaysian government secured ownership of the luxury yacht through the mutual legal assistance treaties between Malaysia, Indonesia and the US.
Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said the seizure was done at the initiative of the DoJ, which asserted ownership of the yacht on behalf of Malaysia because monies belonging to Malaysia were allegedly used to purchase it.
Earlier, the DoJ had said it was suspending its investigation pending Malaysia’s actions.
But lawyers representing Jho Low filed a notice in a US court last Monday that they were opposed to any suspension of proceedings and contested the handover of the vessel to Malaysia.
Lawyers appointed by the AGC believe it will take six to nine months for the Admiralty Court to determine the ownership of Equanimity. So what then is the ultimate aim of the seizure?
It is estimated it will take the government 3 million ringgit a month to maintain the vessel while it is Malaysian waters.
And if this case drags on for nine months, this works out to a whopping 27 million ringgit.
On Monday, Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the government planned to take inventory of items on the yacht and open the vessel for public viewing before selling it “at the highest price”.
It would make more sense to nix the public viewing idea and do an immediate auction as soon as the court rules in Malaysia’s favour to dispose of the vessel and recover a large part of the 1 billion ringgit.
As it is, a steady stream of curious onlookers have been flocking to the Boustead Cruise Centre in Port Klang to get a glimpse of probably the world’s most famous yacht.
Larger crowds were expected this past weekend, prompting at least 50 general operations force personnel to be deployed to take charge of security for the yacht while it is berthed in Port Klang.
Unverified photos, supposedly leaked, of the interior of the yacht are already circulating on social media and its sheer opulence is mind-blowing.
Among the luxurious touches are a helicopter landing pad, a Turkish bath, a pool, spa facilities, a movie theatre, a beauty salon, a gym and a sauna.
Not everyone can afford a yacht; buying it is one thing, maintaining it is another. Only the very rich can purchase a superyacht and this is what sets them apart from other rich people.
You can have a Rolex watch, a Birkin bag or even an apartment in Trump Tower, but owning a luxury yacht puts you in a select club of the mega rich, with the likes of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and Khalifa Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi.
Commissioned in 2014, Equanimity has been sailing around the world for four years now.
Interestingly though, her 18-member multinational crew has only been working on the vessel for the last three weeks.
Its captain, Oystein Senneseth, told reporters that the crew members will stay with the vessel but are free to disembark and return as and when required.
The vessel was seized in Bali in February at the request of US authorities as part of the DoJ investigation.
However, a Jakarta court in April had ruled in favour of the owners after they applied for a court motion to declare the seizure illegal.
In July, Indonesian police seized the yacht again following a formal request for legal assistance from the US. But because of the sensitive negotiations conducted at the highest levels of different agencies in the three countries, the yacht was finally allowed to sail to Malaysia.
A number of questions need to be asked of the crew. Who hired them? What happened to the previous crew? Have there been any guests on-board for the last three weeks?
These and many more questions should be answered in the coming weeks, even as the court battle proceeds to establish Equanimity’s rightful owner.
The writer believes that the seizure of Equanimity is the first step in unlocking the 1MDB puzzle. But until Jho Low is detained or comes forward on his own accord, this saga can never fully be concluded.