A promotional still for Dirty Money.

Dirty Money: The Man at the Top

Dept. of Scum and Villainy


“The young ones, darling, we’re the young ones. And young ones, shouldn’t be afraid. To live, love, while the flame is strong, ’cause we may not be the young ones, very long.”

“The Young Ones”, Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett

The high point of this particular episode comes at the very end, when Najib Razak, standing on a stage in Port Dickson, surrounded by his supporters, starts belting out a rendition of Cliff Richard’s “The Young Ones”. Reading the lyrics off his phone and woefully off-key, he sings with the confidence of someone without a care in the world, of an emperor who’s never once been told that he isn’t wearing any clothes.

I couldn’t tell if Najib’s choice of song – this carpe diem ditty – was an intentional contrivance on his part or just accidental symmetry. Just as I was unable to tell if he genuinely believed what he was saying throughout this documentary or if they were just a set of well rehearsed rejoinders. (There is the added irony that the song he chose to sing was from a movie whose plot centres around corporate greed; but that’s just a happy coincidence.)

By now, most of you probably know everything there is to know about the 1MDB scandal. If you haven’t already read any one of the three major publications on the subject, then you might have seen either M for Malaysia or The Kleptocrats (or at least the targeted banner ads for that movie; they’re everywhere!) And even if you haven’t had the time for any sort of deep dive, you would have been unable to escape the constant barrage of news regarding the ongoing court proceedings.

With that in mind, I’m sure you’re wondering whether or not this latest take has anything to add to the conversation on 1MDB. On whether or not it is revelatory in any way. The short answer is not really. The long answer is a little more nuanced.

But first, in case you hadn’t yet gotten around to watching the series, Dirty Money serves up an after the fact primer on the many cons, frauds, and scandals, that have plagued the world of business. Its first season covered everything from how HSBC laundered money for drug cartels, to investigating the source of Donald Trump’s “fortune”, to Volkswagen lying to its consumers about just how dirty its diesel engines were. Its brisk episodes (running between 55 and 77 minutes each) speak to a common theme in addressing individuals, corporations, and governments so unburdened by morality that they engaged in shocking acts of malfeasance.

And thus, 1MDB.

In Dirty Money, we see Leo and Jho hanging out at the premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street.

This episode of Dirty Money covers a lot of familiar ground. We see most of the same talking heads retelling that nightmarish tale of how billions of dollars were stolen from the many, and used for the benefit of the few. We hear about Goldman Sachs and Xavier Justo, about Jho Low and Rosmah. We hear from Tony Pua and Anwar Ibrahim and Maria Chin and Clare Rewcastle Brown. The interviews are succinct and snappy. They paint a complete picture if not necessarily a different one. Think of it as the Cliffs Notes to the incredibly complex conspiracy that is the 1MDB story.

Where the documentary sets itself apart, however, is in the unprecedented access that the filmmakers had to Najib himself. And while what he has to say isn’t necessarily novel or particularly convincing, it’s watching him over the course of these 57 minutes that gives us some insight. (Rosmah is spoken about frequently but never spoken to.)

For starters, Najib seems incredibly relaxed for someone with a life sentence hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles. His answers are spoken with far more clarity than ever before. (Which, I realise, isn’t saying very much.) And there are brief moments, when his guard is down, and it looks like the camera catches him in a flash of self-reflection.

Najib Razak as seen on the Dirty Money episode "The Man at the Top".

While the documentary doesn’t humanise Najib – he comes across as being far too detached from reality for that – what it does is show us a residual disconnect between those seeking justice and the people who they claim to be fighting for.

Scattered throughout the hour are these conversations with fisherman who, extremely poor and with little prospect, lament the loss of the Najib era. They talk about how, during his tenure as prime minister, they used to receive aid by way of boats, engines, and frequent cash handouts. They talk about how all of that has since stopped. It is then, when one older gentlemen finally proclaims: “Though Najib takes money from others, from the country, he gives it to the people. He takes care of the people. It’s okay if he takes the country’s money. Who doesn’t steal? What prime minister doesn’t steal?”

This is then mirrored towards the end of the episode when Clare Rewcastle Brown seemingly responds to the old man’s earlier statment: “So you’ll go and find some poor fisherman who’s living on the margins of existence and he’ll shrug his shoulders and he’ll say: ‘oh, well, it was great under Najib, because he gave me a bit of money just before the election, normally.’ I don’t think that justifies what Najib did.”

It is a moment that is very cunningly spliced together with images of that same old man, untangling his fishing net, while singing a dirge about the plight of the neglected fisherman to the tune of “Perajurit Tanah Air”. The evocation of Saiful Bahari’s composition, about patriotism, about sacrifice, about love and duty, when contrasted with Clare’s words, paints an incredibly stark picture. Of the same kind of disconnect and staggering inequality that is exploited by ruthless politicians the world over.

It is a startling reminder that democracy is only worth something when it is coupled with the education and elevation of each and every member of our society.

On its own, this episode of Dirty Money serves merely as an introduction to the ongoing saga that is 1MDB. When taken as part of a whole, however, it tells a different story, of the unending quest for wealth, of the consequences of unfettered capitalism, and of a global financial system so corrupt that it was complicit in allowing such historic acts of grift to take place.

Dirty Money: The Man at the Top
Netflix, Season 2
Director: Zach Heinzerling
Showrunners: Alex Gibney and Meaghan O’Hara

Netflix’s second season of Dirty Money, which offers a look inside Jared Kushner’s real estate empire, the Wells Fargo banking scandal, and our very own 1MDB corruption case, premieres globally on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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