ONE of the enduring side stories of the 1MDB scandal was the billion-ringgit superyacht that was bought with pilfered money and later seized in high-profile dramatic fashion in Bali by Indonesian authorities in February 2018, eventually being brought back to Malaysia in August 2018 – post-14th general election – to face “arrest”.
Lawyer Sitpah Selvaratnam, who offered her services for free for the return of luxury yacht, the Equanimity, which was bought by 1MDB mastermind Jho Low for US$250 million (some RM1 billion) using pilfered funds from the state development company, has written a fascinating account of how she did it.
The story, The Arrest of the Superyacht (the) Equanimity, begins with Sitpah sitting restlessly, with sweaty palms, on a Malaysia Airlines flight in January 2019 on the way to London for a superyacht investor conference, to find a buyer for the Equanimity for no less US$130 million (RM537.5 million).
It all began eight months earlier in the wake of GE14. Fast forward, and the superyacht, now her catch, had captured her imagination.
She says: “The Equanimity was infamous. She was majestic, yet elusive. Jho Low has spun an air of mystery about her, with rumours of resplendent parties and celebrities aboard, sailing the seven seas just outside maritime boundaries and the reach of the law. She had danced on the minds of maritime lawyers.
“What a catch she would be, and now she had become my catch. Far more fascinating in the complexity of her claim and delicate in her management, than the arrest of an oil tanker on a hire dispute, or a container ship for a cargo damage claim, which were already exciting on a work scale of a lawyer.”
The instruction came to Sitpah in July 2018, from her former partner Tan Sri Tommy Thomas who had been appointed attorney-general a month earlier. There was a possibility that the yacht will come to Malaysian waters. How can Malaysia stake her claim? I trust you to crack it quickly and quietly, Thomas told her.
The starting point for her investigations was the Department of Justice (DoJ) of the US papers, which had extensively investigated the flow of funds from 1MDB into various assets, including the Equanimity.
The first step of the arrest of the ship could only be made if an ownership claim could be established by 1MDB or its group of companies. And this is where the DoJ papers provided a trail.
There were 32 layers of bank accounts involved and it was necessary to break down the transactions visually. The book goes on to explain the trail of transactions, which indicated US$262 million went to the purchase of the Equanimity.
The warrant of arrest was issued on August 6, 2018, following information the Equanimity was entering Malaysian waters. The next day, the Equanimity docked at the Boustead Cruise Centre and was promptly arrested.
The next order of business was to get the ship sold. The first task was to get an order of sale. Selling it was a challenge – there were not many customers. Eventually, the sale was made to the Genting group for US$126 million, just about half its original cost.
As it was a direct sale, commission was avoided and some US$4 million was saved, in effect meaning that the gross sale price was at the minimum reserve price of US$130 million.
This a technical book but for those who are interested in such deals, it is written in a simple manner with legalese explained. It would, of course, be of interest to those in the maritime industry, especially lawyers in that area.
While it is packed with information, the book itself is short, some 160 pages, more than half of which are appendices filled with detailed information. It is a story of how a group of lawyers led by Sitpah put their efforts together to retrieve a valuable asset bought with money stolen from a government company, 1MDB.
But, we must not forget what made it possible – GE14 and the overthrow of a corrupt government, and a new commitment to get back what belonged to Malaysia, along with the best price for it.
As Sitpah wrote in the preface to her book: “When I started work on this book in December 2019, the Pakatan Harapan government was in power. I wanted to share the exuberance I had experienced over the arrest of the Equanimity; and the hazards of normal methods employed in an arrest and sale of a ship… There was an unexpected and shocking change to the Perikatan government in late February 2020, virtually overnight. The political coup robbed the people of all that they had achieved in the 14th general election on May 9, 2018.
“As I continued working on this book, I was motivated to capture a period in time when integrity and accountability mattered, and had won the day. It was one of the high points in the history of Malaysia.
“I can only hope that this book inspires others to continue striving for this ideal. Malaysia is certainly worth it.”
It is a reminder of what this nation could achieve if all of us put our best foot forward in the service of our country with absolutely no thought of our own reward. Sitpah did not benefit a single sen for the effort she put in to recover US$126 million for the country.
Now, how many of us can claim to have done that?
Sitpah outlines some of the personal lessons she learnt from bringing in the ship. I leave the reader with this remark from her: “I didn’t succeed in getting a buyer from my London foray, but thanks to MY (the) Equanimity, I found a powerful voice in me that was fearless.”
Perhaps we should all find our own fearless, powerful voices again in these troubled times and ruffled waters.
The book will be launched on Thursday, April 15. It will be sold for RM88 per copy until the launch date and at RM108 after that. The proceeds will go to charity. Click here for more.