Pulling the Thread to Unravel 1MDB: How Clare Rewcastle Brown Uncovered Billions of Dollars in Global Corruption

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Clare Rewcastle Brown may be a seasoned reporter, but the founder of the Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak never set out to expose the international 1MDB scandal when she began reporting about Malaysia in 2010.

Originally, Brown wanted to report on the deforestation of the Sarawak region and the effect on its inhabitants. She told the ACFE that as she dug deeper into who was approving, and benefiting from, the destruction of the rainforest in Sarawak, she found that the issues ran higher up the flagpole than just local companies and governments. “It was kind of incremental. I was following a strand that concerned me, about what was going on; how our global systems were being managed to the enormous disadvantage of people and the environment,” she said. “The thing anyone finds when they look at corruption is that it’s a top down thing. If you’ve got a corrupt center to a government of a country, the corruption spreads out. I had been finding corruption down on the ground where I had started with this project. I wasn’t starting at a high-level investigation — I was looking at injustices in the very grassroots level of Sarawak.”

As Brown found more connections between corrupt politicians and investors tangled in the story of the deforestation and the large development fund 1MDB, she drew on her experience as a reporter for the BBC and ITV, and decided to follow the story. “I went out of my self-imposed area of focus,” she said. “It was too good a story, and I am a journalist. I could tell it was a huge global story … if anything was going to be done, you were going to have to go for the jugular.”

Brown began publishing the information she found using her own media outlet the Sarawak Report in 2010. The larger story about the public development fund 1MDB being used to fund political ambitions and vanity projects began to garner international attention. “It’s all very colorful … you’ve got Leonardo DiCaprio involved, you’ve got the UN Foundation; there were so many people taking 1MDB’s money, the web of characters and high-profile organizations,” she said.

With increased attention, Brown faced increased animosity from the Malaysian government. She was denied entry into Malaysia in 2013 and was issued an arrest warrant by a Malaysian court in August 2015. “The amount of legal hard-hitting that’s gone on to try and shut up the media on this story has been almost unprecedented,” she said. “The easiest thing in the world would have been to bury this story. With so many powerful political interests, there were many times I was actually very worried that this story would get buried. Very powerful legal forces were working hard to dissuade mainstream media from covering it.”

Brown continues to publish news on the Sarawak Report and believes the story of 1MDB is indicative of the larger issues surrounding global corruption. “1MDB is the perfect story of how a huge sum of criminal money was using the system, the offshore Panama system,” she said. “Why should rich criminals be protected in some special way from the kind of intrusion we all have to put up with?”

Despite run-ins with the Malaysian government, she remains optimistic that continued investigative journalism and proactive enforcement agencies can help prevent and punish corruption. “I think we’re seeing a swing of the pendulum and I think 1MDB’s just kind of cropped up perhaps at the right place at the right time … governments across the world have started to realize that they’ve lost control and populations have lost patience,” she said. “I think there are big changes ahead — positive changes.”

You can hear Brown speak at the upcoming 2016 ACFE Fraud Conference Asia-Pacific. To register, or find out more information, visit FraudConference.com/AsiaPac2016.