Some of Asia's elite in the spotlight after leak of Pandora Papers

KUALA LUMPUR (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Dozens of influential Asians, including ruling party politicians, are among thousands of people around the world linked to offshore companies or trusts in the latest leak of confidential financial information dubbed the Pandora Papers.

The nearly 3TB data dump by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is the network's largest so far, even when compared with 2016's Panama Papers and more than double the size of 2017's Paradise Papers.

About a dozen prominent Malaysians, including at least four active politicians, are among those named in the 12 million files making up the Pandora Papers.

Finance Minister Zafrul Aziz said on Monday (Oct 4) he was seeking legal advice after claiming that the news website, Malaysiakini, had suggested "that Capital Investment (Labuan) Limited is still associated with me instead of being part of the Kenanga Group".

"By June 2010, I had assumed the role of chief executive officer at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd and had, therefore, taken steps to relinquish my executive and directorship roles in the Kenanga Group," Tengku Zafrul said in a statement.

According to Malaysiakini, Zahid Hamidi, the president of the ruling Umno who is currently facing dozens of graft charges, was named as a director in a British Virgin Islands (BVI) company called Breedon Limited. The company was incorporated in 1996 when the former deputy premier won a stiff battle for the party's youth wing leadership.

The likes of influential former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, who also led the powerful Council of Eminent Persons when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to power between 2018 and 2020, and lawmaker William Leong, an MP from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, have insisted that their dealings in offshore firms and accounts under their control are completely legal.

Datuk Seri Anwar has filed an emergency motion for the Pandora Papers to be debated in Parliament.

Two senior Cabinet ministers in Indonesia and a number of businessmen are also listed in the Pandora Papers. Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto told news magazine Tempo he had no knowledge of the shell companies in BVI he had allegedly established.

A spokesman for Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan confirmed that he had served in a company registered in Panama, Petrocapital SA, from 2007 to 2010.

Luhut, who was not in government then, stepped down from the company due to "obstacles related to geographical conditions, culture and investment certainty" and decided to "focus on business in Indonesia".

One of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's top campaign donors, Dennis Uy, ranked the sixth wealthiest man in the country, appears in the papers as the beneficial owner of BVI firm China Shipbuilding and Exports Corp.

Transport Minister Arthur Tugade and his children, meanwhile, controlled Solart Holdings Limited, a BVI company that appears to have been operating at least since 2007.

Former finance minister Milwida Guevara told the online news site Rappler this was a red flag as Tugade has never declared his offshore assets in the yearly disclosure statement required of civil servants.

Former elections commission chief Andy Bautista insisted that his family purchased offshore firm Baumann Enterprises upon the advice of the Bank of Singapore as "normal private banking practice to facilitate our family's desired objective of pooling our assets together".

While it is not illegal to make use of shell companies or hold assets offshore, these structures help to obscure true owners and control of such wealth.

Many of those who have found themselves in the spotlight face allegations ranging from corruption to money laundering and tax avoidance. Former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif was ousted after the release of the Panama Papers in 2016.

The names of prominent members of the current Pakistani government, donors to Prime Minister Imran Khan's party and family members of the country's powerful military generals have been listed in the Pandora Papers.

Khan, who took office on an anti-graft platform, responded by tweeting: "My government will investigate all our citizens mentioned in the Pandora Papers and if any wrongdoing is established we will take appropriate action."

In India, 300 people are named, among them a sports icon, a disgraced businessman, politicians and former government officials.

The Indian Express, which is the local ICIJ partner, has revealed around half a dozen names so far, including that of cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar, whose entity in the BVI was liquidated just three months after the Panama Papers expose in 2016.

Anil Ambani, the brother of India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, who declared bankruptcy in a UK case in 2020, owned at least 18 offshore companies in Jersey, BVI and Cyprus which had borrowed and invested US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion).

In Japan, more than 1,000 companies and individuals are mentioned, among them some of the biggest names in the corporate world, including Don Quijote discount store chain founder Takao Yasuda and SoftBank Group chairman Masayoshi Son. Both firms denied any wrongdoing.

Entrepreneur Feng Qiya is the only mainland Chinese politician named so far. According to the ICIJ, Feng set up offshore firm Linkhigh Trading in 2016. It had $2 million in assets and was registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission but is now inactive.

The investigation also named two former Hong Kong leaders, billionaire Tung Chee Hwa and Leung Chun Ying. Tung and his family have registered nearly 30 offshore entities, while Leung was listed as the owner of two BVI entities while serving as the territory's chief executive.

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