The choppy waters faced in selling Jho Low’s yacht

KUALA LUMPUR: When the superyacht Equanimity was seized in Indonesian waters in 2018, many saw it as a glimmer of hope in the stormy sea of the 1MDB corruption scandal.

Once the property of fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, the yacht was one of the earliest recoveries made by the government in its effort to recoup assets bought with misappropriated funds.

Lawyer Sitpah Selvaratnam, who helmed the judicial sale of the vessel, recalled in an FMT interview how the “one of a kind” case was finally resolved and the patriotism she and her team felt as they embarked on one of the trickiest maritime cases in the nation’s history.

Sitpah, who was appointed by then attorney-general Tommy Thomas to oversee the case, said it was encouraging to see how fellow Malaysians took interest in the case.

“The whole country was behind us. Even the pakcik who drove me to the ship when it was stationed in Langkawi had a big smile on his face the whole ride there. He felt like he was part of a rescue mission.”

It was however far from smooth sailing for her team of six, who had to deal with media and public scrutiny, doubtful buyers, and the threat that Low would resurface.

The Equanimity was independently valued at US$130 million. Sitpah said drumming up interest in such a big ticket item proved difficult as there were only so many people in the world with that kind of money to spend. Moreover, the second-hand market had seen just 20 other sales cross the US$100 million mark.

“We were basically asking billionaires to fall into a public tender exercise. It was like inviting royalty to queue up for dinner.”

Making matters worse was that two other judicial yacht sales, for the Indian Empress and the Natita, had been completed at much lower prices, around US$42 million and US$27.5 million, respectively.

“So the impression people got was that US$130 million for a judicial sale was exorbitant. People had an expectation that they could get the Equanimity dirt cheap.”

It was eventually sold to Genting Malaysia Bhd in 2019 for US$126 million. Sitpah said it was one of just a handful of offers above US$100 million.

“I think the next closest was around US$115 million. If I remember correctly, it was from a Middle Eastern buyer.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum were “insulting bids” in the sub-US$50 million range, which she chalked up to people trying their luck.

Sitpah said another complication was the elephant in the room, Low.

“Even though he never did, every step of the way we had to prepare as if he could crop up at any moment. He might claim that he used his money or that the money was not stolen or that the boat was not a gift but obtained for value. So we always had to be ready to address those questions.”

She said this also concerned buyers, who worried about whether Low would pop up after they had bought the boat to stake a claim to it and whether they would get a clean title.

“They played up all the ambiguity and notoriety to depress the price. But we were clear. We weren’t moving much from US$130 million.”

She remembers the camaraderie felt by her and her five colleagues, who travelled around the world in their attempts to make the sale.

“It was a big undertaking for us, one that was driven by unity and happiness. We were doing it for the new Malaysia and something bigger than ourselves,” she said.

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