AmBank ex-officer: I was very stressed, unsure what will happen if PM Najib’s cheques bounced or if there’s a screw up

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 — It was very stressful for AmBank when then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had personal accounts at the bank, especially when he frequently issued cheques exceeding the amount of money available in the accounts and as there was pressure not to “screw up”, the High Court heard today.

Joanna Yu, a former relationship manager at AmBank, told the High Court this today when sharing how stressful it was to ensure Najib’s cheques did not bounce or get rejected by the bank due to insufficient funds.

Yu was testifying as the 41st prosecution witness in Najib’s criminal trial, where the latter was accused of abusing his power and laundering over RM2 billion worth of money misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Over RM2.28 billion of 1MDB funds were alleged to have entered Najib’s accounts.

Despite the huge inflows of money sometimes to the tune of millions of US dollars into Najib’s accounts, Yu had previously said there was frequently a shortfall of funds to cover the amount written in Najib’s cheques, as the cheques would be issued from accounts that had insufficient funds instead of the accounts that had enough funds.

Confirming that she had never handled any prime minister’s accounts before Najib opened his private accounts at AmBank, Yu said she was initially “shocked” when Low Taek Jho told her that Najib in his capacity as 1MDB board of advisers’ chairman wanted to open accounts at AmBank.

This was because Yu had assumed that the prime minister of Malaysia would want to open accounts with “government banks” such as Maybank instead.

She noted that Low had told her it has to be AmBank then managing director Cheah Tek Kuang and those above his rank to meet with Najib to have the accounts opened at AmBank, and that Low had said it was not her position to meet with Najib.

“So I didn’t have any expectations. But as time goes by, when the account was overdrawn, there was pressure, we were told cannot bounce cheques, because prime minister, the repercussion, what if the prime minister comes ‘why you bounce my cheque, it’s only this amount, don’t you trust me to make it up’.

“Even the branch when they said there is insufficient money, they actually sounded stressed. It was stressful and that was what we felt,” she said, referring to when AmBank’s Jalan Raja Chulan branch — where Najib’s accounts were opened — would alert her about the risk of Najib’s cheques bouncing when there were insufficient funds in the accounts.

Asked by deputy public prosecutor Ahmad Akram Gharib on why she found it “stressful and challenging”, Yu explained that no mistakes could be made as the prime minister’s account was involved.

“This is the prime minister’s account, you know. If you screw up, if you did anything wrong, there’s always ‘what happens?’ He’s the prime minister of Malaysia, are you going to risk his reputation? So it was always stressful at the end,” she said.

Yu confirmed that AmBank would have returned or bounced Najib’s cheques if Low — better known as Jho Low — did not arrange for cash to be paid into Najib’s accounts to top up the funds there to cover the cheques’ amounts.

Yu said there were repeated instructions and directives given by Low and Najib’s authorised account handler Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil for AmBank to not bounce the cheques from the “PM’s accounts” due to the insufficient funds, and that AmBank was internally at loss on what to do as they knew it was a prime minister’s accounts and cheques.

She explained that was why AmBank gave the “leeway” of checking first if there were funds coming into Najib’s accounts to enable the prime minister’s cheques to be honoured, instead of closing down Najib’s accounts on reasons of bounced cheques.

“We would usually, for normal corporate individuals, I believe it is two times, you don’t have enough funds, we would automatically close the account.

“But this one, even the branch and everybody, we were a bit concerned because it is the prime minister’s cheque presented for payment, so we made a bit of leeway to check where are the funds to make sure the PM’s cheque does not bounce,” she said.

She explained that she took it that Najib wanted to make payments when he issued the cheques so AmBank had to honour the cheques. Yu had on multiple occasions alerted Low about the risk of the cheques bouncing, with Low then making sure funds were added into Najib’s accounts to prevent such events.

Asked what she thought would happen if AmBank had allowed Najib’s cheques to bounce, Yu said: “I don’t know, but on hindsight, so many things. But at the moment, we were just concerned, the negative media ‘Malaysian PM’s cheques bounce’. It could be anything, but we were just cautious because it was a cheque issued by PM of Malaysia.

“Anything could have happened, it is a reputational risk to the prime minister, we don’t know. I was actually very stressed at that time,” she said.

Asked why she had thought the media would pick up a story about the PM’s cheques bouncing, Yu replied AmBank just did not know what could have happened if Najib’s cheques were to be rejected.

“This is Malaysia, I can’t say for sure, but remember that it’s political, it’s all this. This is the PM’s account, we didn’t allow the cheque to bounce, because we don’t know the repercussions to the bank, to Malaysia, so we waited for instructions. If you issued the cheque, we took it that the PM wanted the cheque to be paid, so we took it that we couldn’t return the cheque. This is the PM’s cheque,” she stressed.

She did not think she would have done the same thing if it was not the prime minister’s account.

Unlike other clients who would have their accounts closed based on AmBank’s protocols if their cheques bounced due to insufficient funds, Yu explained that the bank could not do the same to Najib’s accounts despite being concerned.

She said it was not for AmBank to ask Najib directly to close his account, but her then managing director Ashok Ramamurthy instead had asked her to try to see if she could get Najib to want to close down his accounts there himself.

Najib has since closed down all his accounts with AmBank.

Among other things, Yu confirmed Najib was the only one who could sign off on his cheques from his accounts, and that there was never any complaint that Najib did not actually issue those cheques.

She also

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