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Just who is Jho Low?

There are very few 31-year-old tycoons in Malaysia. And fewer yet have direct access to top Malaysian politicians, royal families in the Middle East or even major celebrities in Hollywood.

But that’s exactly what Low Taek Jho – better known as Jho Low – enjoys. His influence in oil-rich Gulf countries is such that he can persuade them to bring billions in investment to Malaysia. Often, his role is hidden.

He has been seen partying at exclusive clubs with the likes of Usher and Paris Hilton, and was even said to have brought Korean megastar Psy to Penang in May.

Penang-born Low, son of Datuk Larry Low of MWE Holdings Bhd fame, has invested in multiple ventures including property, being the link for sovereign wealth funds out of the Middle East and even a venture into marketing high-quality women’s lingerie. Today, his family is said to reside mainly in Singapore.

Many are curious about the source of the young tycoon’s wealth. Unlike others, who have prominent corporate vehicles or businesses, he has no apparent flagship except Hong Kong-based company Jynwel Capital Ltd, of which he is listed as CEO.

Critics say he is no more than a well-connected middleman collecting fees for deals, while his friends defend him as one who brings much-needed investment to Malaysia.

In an interview with a Malaysian English-language daily, Low has styled himself as being at parties sponsored by friends and not spending his own money, which he said is instead spent on work.

However, he has mentioned having set up the Wynton Private Equity Group with some of his friends while taking a semester off from his degree programme at the Wharton School, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

While little is known of the Wynton Group as well as of Low himself, both were reported in October 2012 as being parties interested in bidding for the world-famous Claridge’s, Berkeley and Connaught hotels in London.

In a court document filed in Ireland, the approach by Low was shown to have been made in mid-December 2010, followed by a revised letter of intent sent to shareholders on Jan 3, 2011 proposing an acquisition of all shares on the basis of an enterprise value of £1 bil, subject to due diligence and the agreement of documentation including warranties and indemnities.

“An accompanying letter from a Malaysian bank indicated that it was intended to seek to raise up to £950 million of debt and/or mezzanine finance and £50-£100 million of equity. A further letter of intent dated Jan 10, 2011 was sent to the shareholders,” it says. However, the name of the Malaysian bank was not mentioned.

The court filing adds that Low was said to have had the backing of a Malaysian “sovereign wealth fund”, which was not named. Interestingly, Low has admitted, in that interview with the local English-language daily, to having friends in Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

“I do from time to time speak to friends in Khazanah and 1MDB to get their input and ideas on how to better facilitate investments from the Middle East to Malaysia or vice versa,” he was reported as having said.

While not much information has been made public regarding the Wynton Group, Low’s holdings under Jynwel Capital are transparent. Low is listed on Jynwel’s website as CEO of the company and also holds the post of director of the Viceroy Group of Hotels.

The San Francisco-based hotel group also explains Jho Low’s close connection to the Hilton family, also hoteliers. He is said to be well acquainted with Paris Hilton, whose family owns the Hilton Hotel chain.

Interestingly, the Viceroy Group is also part of the holdings of the Mubadala Development Company based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

The close connection between Low and Mubadala is well demonstrated as he is also non-executive chairman for Asia and a member of the advisory board of EMI Music Publishing. EMI is also the recording label for Usher in the United States.

Low’s Jynwel and the Mubadala fund were part of the November 2011 takeover of EMI by Sony worth US$2.2 bil (see sidebar).

The website adds that he is also a director of Lilestone Ltd, a London-based company that owns Myla, a lingerie boutique with nine branches in the UK, Germany, Ireland and France. Jynwel completed the purchase of the brand on Aug 5, 2013.

It is Low’s link to the Mubadala fund that places the spotlight on the dealings between Jho Low, representing the Mubadala Group, and Malaysia’s government-linked 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

1MDB and the Middle East link

Through contacts made during his schooling years overseas, Low is believed to be the link for 1MDB’s receipt of funds from Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Development Corp.

Low had a role in setting up the Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), the state’s sovereign fund manager and the forerunner of 1MDB.

“I was involved in the setting up of TIA from January 2009 to mid-May 2009. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong [Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin] was kind enough to ask me to assist, given my relationship with the Middle East and insight I had on how they had set up their sovereign wealth funds,” he said.

However, Low denied any involvement in 1MDB itself, saying he had not received any compensation for his work with the company. This is also the stance of former 1MDB CEO Datuk Shahrol Halmi.

“The role of Jho Low as far as 1MDB is concerned is zero. I’ve heard talk that he is advising the government on Middle Eastern investors but it’s not true. What he does is help promote Malaysia to investors,” Shahrol has said.

Malaysian-based 1MDB has seen a rise in investment from Mubadala, which includes US$4 bil to develop an aluminium plant in Sarawak, a part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) project.

The Abu Dhabi-based group again invested in Sarawak in January 2010, when Mubadala Oil and Gas signed a Development and Production-Sharing Agreement with Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) to operate the offshore-Sarawak Block SK320. The agreement details that the stakes would be divided 75% to 25% in favour of Mubadala.

For full story, go to www.focusmalaysia.my.

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