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The Accidental Whistle-Blower: How a Retired London Journalist Uncovered Massive Corruption Half a World Away

17 minute read

A week before she was to give a keynote address at an antifraud conference in Singapore, Clare Rewcastle Brown received an anonymous email. “Dear Madam, I want to thank you for exposing all the corruption and wrongdoing in Malaysia,” it read.

“I am writing to you urgently with regards to your upcoming trip to Singapore,” it continued. “The [Malaysian] Special Branch knows that you are coming and they have arranged with their Singapore counterparts to arrest you on arrival.”

Rewcastle Brown is accustomed to this sort of thing, and she decided to stay in London, where she lives with her family, and deliver her Nov. 21 remarks over streaming video. (Singapore’s Attorney General’s Chambers told TIME in a statement that “there are no special arrangements between Singapore and Malaysia in relation to the extradition of any particular individual.”)

She gave her speech from her dining room, which also functions as her newsroom. It is here that she runs Sarawak Report, a nearly seven-year-old investigative news website. Sixteen months earlier, in July 2015, she had published a bombshell of a report: the personal bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, she alleged, held nearly $700 million tied to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

“I want to say first how sorry I am not to be able to join you in Singapore as planned,” Rewcastle Brown, 57, told the crowd nearly 13,000 km away. Her audience, comprising mostly executives and auditors, was rapt. “The loss is entirely mine as it was a huge opportunity for me to meet with so many people of expertise in financial fraud — where I have been stumbling along as a jobbing journalist.”

“So, where do I fit as a mere reporter into this juggernaut of a story?” she asked the crowd. “You can hardly expect me not to take advantage of this platform you have kindly provided me with, to put in a plea for the vital role of journalism and free media in exposing corruption that threatens to undermine all our democratic systems.”

The 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) logo is seen on a billboard at the funds flagship Tun Razak Exchange's under-development site in Kuala Lumpur on July 3, 2015Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images

Rewcastle Brown’s British penchant for understatement is deceptive. The 1MDB controversy uncovered by this “mere reporter” is the biggest corruption scandal in recent memory to involve a head of government, in terms of both the sum of money involved and the magnitude of the sensational news story it has become. Rewcastle Brown is, as Abraham Lincoln apocryphally said of the antislavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” Along with the Wall Street Journal, which has also reported the story thoroughly, Sarawak Report has been instrumental in both informing the Malaysian public and bringing the story into the global consciousness.

There are eight governments around the world concurrently investigating 1MDB. In July, U.S. federal prosecutors announced what they described as the “largest single action” against kleptocracy in U.S. history: they were seizing more than $1 billion in assets apparently obtained with illicit 1MDB funds. The assets include a $30 million penthouse atop Manhattan’s Time Warner Center and art by Monet and Picasso. Rewcastle Brown was first tipped off about 1MDB in December 2013 when she learned that Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz had bankrolled The Wolf of Wall Street. In its complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice said the cash used to fund the film — tens of millions of dollars — was “directly traceable” to 1MDB. Riza is specifically named by the U.S. Department of Justice; Najib is not, but several mentions of a “Malaysian Official 1” refer to him, government minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan told the BBC. The Prime Minister has denied all allegations of wrongdoing — the Saudi government donated the $700 million, say Malaysian officials.

In July 2015, Sarawak Report became the first news website officially blocked in Malaysia by state censors. Anywhere from three to six times a week, it publishes piecemeal updates to its investigations. The site receives around “a couple million” visitors each year, according to the programmer Rewcastle Brown hired in 2010 to handle the tech side of things. One major story can bring in more than a hundred thousand hits in its first few hours online — most of them from Malaysia, where 7 in 10 people are now online, and where traditional forms of media are controlled by the government. What began in 2010 as a blog about an environmental crisis in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is now the most comprehensive portrait of a diseased body politic and its attendant scandals.

The principal subject of this portrait is Najib, 63, a British-educated career politician who has been the country’s Prime Minister since 2009. He rose to power as a reformer. When he took office seven years ago, many were optimistic that he would establish Malaysia as a model Muslim democracy by easing ethnic tensions and rejuvenating the country’s economy. “For us to move up a few notches, we have to address the structural problems,” Najib told TIME in 2010. To that end, he instated economic programs to encourage private investment and pledged to repeal internal-security measures that the Human Rights Watch once condemned as “a draconian and anachronistic … tool to stifle political dissent.” He pushed for stronger ties with the U.S. — an effort the Obama Administration embraced, eyeing the liberalizing country as a strategic counterweight to China’s clout in the region.

Today, that early optimism is a distant memory. In 2013, Najib only barely won his bid for re-election — his coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), in fact lost the popular vote — and in the years since, “all principles have become subservient to the principle of self-interest,” says Bridget Welsh, a political scientist who focuses on Malaysia. In recent years, a number of Malaysians who have criticized the government have been arrested under the country’s array of antisedition laws — remnants from colonial statute books that Najib’s government has expanded. “Prime Minister Najib has become a political Jekyll and Hyde character, talking like a moderate on the international stage, but then directing a crackdown on his critics at home,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. (In a July 2016 statement, Najib defended the expansion of security laws as “necessary … in the fight against terrorism” and said that critics have “fear-mongered for political reasons.”)

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to members of the media after an event in Kuala Lumpur on July 21, 2016Mohd Rasfan—AFP/Getty Images

Things have worsened in the wake of the 1MDB revelations, which have continued to mount. Najib has sacked senior figures in his government who have questioned his version of events. His Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin got the ax in July 2015 after airing his criticisms. So did the then Attorney General, Abdul Gani Patail, who had reportedly planned to file criminal charges against Najib. (The apparent warrant for his arrest was leaked to Sarawak Report, which published it.)

In a March 1, 2016, statement, the Malaysian government dismissed the 1MDB controversy as a “politically motivated, anti-Najib campaign, which sought to use Western media.” Officials in Kuala Lumpur accuse Rewcastle Brown of being unprofessional and allied with local oppositionists. She says: “I simply followed the story.”

The unlikely fugitive

In the popular narrative, the uprisings of the early 21st century — the Arab Spring, the smartphone-wielding pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — affirm the triumph of information over repression. This interpretation is a tad naive. Sarawak Report’s programmer, who requested anonymity in the interest of his safety, says that he spends much of his time fending off waves of cyberattacks, which Rewcastle Brown believes are coming from groups sponsored by Najib’s supporters. In August 2015, Kuala Lumpur notified Interpol that it had charged Rewcastle Brown with disseminating false documents and partaking in “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” — charges that can result in 25 years in prison.

Interpol has rejected Malaysia’s petition, but Rewcastle Brown, though she affects indifference, is now cautious about where she goes. She has received police protection in London after realizing she was being followed and photographed in Hyde Park. “Despite all the threats and posturing, the government has yet to be able to take any real legal actions against her, presumably because she writes the truth,” says Wong Chen, a bookish, charismatic member of Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition.

The truth is written on a MacBook Pro that sits on Sarawak Report’s news desk, which is also Rewcastle Brown’s dining-room table. The headquarters of this national security threat are an apartment with high ceilings on the fourth floor of a central London walk-up. There are spy thrillers on the bookshelves and Christmas cards from relatives on the mantle. She lives here with her husband Andrew and their two college-aged sons, and, on the day I visit, her father’s cheerful Spanish Farm Dog that she volunteered to babysit. “We’ve done this all on a wing and a prayer,” says Rewcastle Brown.

She looks uncannily like Joni Mitchell, all wide eyes and wistful gravity. Her husband (whose brother is former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown) is reading in the living room; the younger of their two sons, Patrick, is playing PlayStation in his room down the hall. And she is logging onto her laptop. It opens to her email inbox, where there’s a note waiting from a prominent former ambassador to Malaysia, applauding a recent Sarawak Report update. There’s also an email from a man who identifies himself as a manager at a major Malaysian bank, claiming he has information concerning further missing funds. After six years of doing this, skepticism is Rewcastle Brown’s baseline — she likes the words fishy and dodgy — and she knows how to vet him. She screens sources by trawling relevant databases and cross-referencing to confirm that people are who they say they are.

Rewcastle Brown has benefited from the fact that many involved in Malaysian politics are increasingly jaded with it. Her biggest scoops have depended on documents and information leaked by quietly disgruntled government and financial officials. Anonymous tips continue to clog her inbox. At the bottom of every Sarawak Report webpage, above the site’s teal logo, there’s a link with instructions for how to send her an encrypted email. “I’m fairly practiced at squirreling out stories and sources — I talk to people; I ask people if they know anyone worth talking to,” Rewcastle Brown says. “But now people have started finding me, because they know I’m the only guy on the block who does this.”

“I didn’t grasp the magnitude of what we were doing”

You could call Sarawak Report a strange kind of homecoming. In December 1951, a young man named John Rewcastle arrived in the Crown Colony of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. He had studied law at Oxford, but didn’t practice it because he sought to avoid “the obvious thing.” Instead joined the colonial police force and, in the twilight of the world’s biggest empire, made his way up the ranks. In Sarawak, he fell in love with and married a British nurse, and in June 1959, they had a daughter, Clare.

Colonial rule in Sarawak ended in 1963, when the state merged with Malaya to create the nation of Malaysia, but the Rewcastles stayed on for six more years. It was a “fantastic place for a child to live,” Rewcastle Brown says — a playground of beaches and virgin jungles, where indigenous tribes lived unscathed by civilization. Her mother Karis would go to these villages to work as a midwife, and her daughter would tag along. Rewcastle Brown left Sarawak in the spring of 1967, when “the classic British colonial childhood thing was still to get kicked back to boarding school in England at the tender age of 8.”

“And that was that,” she says. “But I have this vivid memory of flying over Borneo down the coast to Singapore. It was a two-hour journey in those days, and I remember looking out the window for two hours at this amazing canopy of unbroken jungle beneath me.”

Rewcastle Brown spent her childhood in fashionable girls’ boarding schools and then studied modern history at King’s College London, taking a particular interest in Soviet studies. “I was trying to get a handle on how the world works,” she says. In 1983, when pursuing a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, she took a secretarial job in the BBC World Service’s current-affairs department. When she graduated, the BBC took her on as a researcher, then promoted her to assistant producer.

While working at the BBC, she was introduced by colleagues to Andrew Brown, a fellow producer whose elder brother Gordon was then an ambitious young Member of Parliament. The future Prime Minister would be the best man at their wedding in 1992. “I would stress that she has always been fiercely independent, someone who is free of political influence, irrespective of who’s in power and who’s running any country,” Gordon Brown, tells TIME. “That’s what makes us proud of her — she’s always been utterly professional.”

She then spent 14 years covering the London news — at the BBC, then Sky News and ITV — during which she developed a reputation among colleagues as an aggressive investigator who made no secret of her faith in journalism as a moral enterprise. Her cameramen called her Rocky Rewcastle, after the scrappy boxer from the movies. “She has the ability to deliver killer punches to those in the shadows who are up to no good,” says Glen Campbell, who worked with Rewcastle Brown at ITV and is now the producer of the BBC’s Panorama news program. He recalls one such example, when they camped out in doorways to film corrupt parking wardens who were ticketing innocent motorists. Rewcastle Brown had heard that the wardens got a bonus for every car they ticketed — including hers. “For Clare, injustice, even a whiff of it, immediately grabs her attention.”

Rewcastle Brown retired from television reporting in 2001 to look after her children, but five years later, an acquaintance who knew about her childhood in Sarawak tipped her off on a media conference that was being held in the state by its then chief minister, Taib Mahmud, to “bolster its positive environmental image.” Her curiosity was piqued, and so after four decades on the other side of the world, she returned to her birthplace.

There, she found her next story. She was startled by the deforestation she witnessed there, and over the next three years, she traveled back and forth with the intent of making a documentary on it. In 2009, an armed group of officers sent her home. She remained committed to exposing the story and bringing it to an audience in Malaysia, where traditional forms of news media are effectively state mouthpieces. The country ranks 146 out of 179 on the World Press Freedom Index; three-quarters of Malaysians say they distrust the news they read. “And so I got a blog,” Rewcastle Brown says. “They have a totally controlled media, but they also have an Internet.”

A view of a tember depot in the upper Ba
A view of a timber depot in the upper Baram region of Malaysia's eastern Sarawak state on July 20, 2010Rahman Roslan—AFP/Getty Images

Sarawak Report went live in February 2010 and, within six months, traffic had climbed from about 300 hits a day to 50,000. Her programmer was on holiday when he got the notification that the site had crashed. “I didn’t grasp the magnitude of what we were doing,” he says. For its first year, Rewcastle Brown ran the website anonymously, out of concern for herself and her family’s safety.

In its reporting, Sarawak Report is thorough and transparent. Its stories are almost always accompanied by screenshots of the various documents that sustain their allegations: bank statements, transaction reports, and the like. These, Rewcastle Brown says, were hidden in plain sight in public records databases that no one thought to check. It was a rabbit hole that she fell down nightly, after kissing her sons and husband goodnight and going to her laptop, where she would remain connecting the dots until dawn. “I discovered the Internet,” she says plainly. “I started seeing how much company information was out there — they didn’t think it would be accessible to a middle-aged journalist sitting in her kitchen in England.”

“We have reached something that is unstoppable”

In January 2016, the office of Malaysia’s Attorney General announced that it had concluded its investigation into 1MDB, and exonerated Najib of all allegations. But on Nov. 19 tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur to demand Najib’s resignation, as spirited and outraged as ever. Protesters were not dissuaded by the fact that the rally’s organizer, Maria Chin Abdullah, had been arrested the night before (she was later released), or by the fact that the government had declared the rally illegal. “We have to speak out,” said 25-year-old Elissa Abubakar, a business student at the University of Kuala Lumpur. “Before this not everyone was aware, but now we have this information, and people want to speak out and fight.”

“We have reached something that is unstoppable,” Rafizi Ramli, a popular opposition figure who has been sentenced to 18 months in jail (he’s appealing) for leaking government secrets related to 1MDB, said that afternoon as thunderclouds gathered over the capital’s iconic Petronas Towers. “It’s a matter of time before Najib gives in.”

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections Rally Against Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak
A protester holds up a placard near the Petronas Twin Towers during the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections rally, also known as Bersih, in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 19, 2016Charles Pertwee—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Rewcastle Brown is modest about her role in all this, but concedes that “this conversation — it would have been unthinkable even a year and a half ago.” Said a 25-year-old freelance photographer at the Kuala Lumpur protest who declined to give his name out of concern for his safety: “We see [Sarawak Report] as the truth. And the truth needs to be revealed. The media here can’t cover it.”

Malaysia is a country with a long tradition of diaspora, and there were solidarity rallies in cities around the globe that Nov. 19. Hundreds attended the protest in London, where all attention was on Rewcastle Brown, who addressed the crowd. “I’ve come here to join you, and I think we’re all in awe of the bravery of the people who did go out and demonstrate in Malaysia itself today,” she said. “I’ve played just one small part.”

“A big part!” someone in the crowd yelled. Said Zainah Zain, 45, originally from Kuala Lumpur but now living in Cardiff, Wales: “Clare stands for justice.”

— With reporting by Suyin Haynes / London

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