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Malaysia’s 1MDB pushes for quick asset sales

Signage for 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB) is displayed at the site of the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Goh Seng Chong | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Signage for 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB) is displayed at the site of the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Malaysia's scandal-hit 1MDB investment fund is pressing for a quick — and possibly contentious — sale of more than $2 billion of energy assets as part of an effort to cut its large debts and revive its battered image.

1Malaysia Development Berhad has set four companies — all but one of them foreign — a deadline of November to lodge bids for power plants in Egypt, Bangladesh and Malaysia, in the hope of securing a provisional deal by year end.

The process will be closely watched as 1MDB seeks to quell concerns over its multibillion-dollar debt pile and allegations of misappropriation of money that are swirling around the fund and Najib Razak, prime minister of the Southeast Asian country. The power-holdings auction also has the potential to deepen the political battles rocking Malaysia if it is won by an overseas buyer, or yields a price below what 1MDB paid.

According to people familiar with the matter, the four unnamed companies announced as shortlisted by 1MDB earlier this month were Saudi Arabia's Acwa Power, Nebras Power of Qatar, Hong Kong's CGN Meiya Power Holdings and Malaysian state-owned Tenaga Nasional. The fund, which did not respond to a request for comment, paid a total of about 12 billion ringgit ($2.7 billion) for its initial stakes in the assets now up for sale, according to press releases from the time.

The auction process remains unclear in some important respects, starting with the status of the potential bidders. Acwa, a Saudi-based power plant developer in which the government holds a minority stake, is unaware it has made the shortlist for the auction, according to one person familiar with the matter. The company would be keen to take part in a clear process, the person added.

CGN Meiya, an independent power producer, declined to comment on whether it had made the shortlist, saying only that it was always looking for high-quality projects consistent with its development plans. Nebras, an energy-focused investment vehicle set up by the Qatari government last year, was unavailable for comment. Tenaga Nasional, Malaysia's main electricity generator, declined to comment.

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Doubts also remain over exactly how much of the energy assets are up for sale. While it was originally suggested foreign buyers would be restricted to maximum holdings of 49 per cent, some people familiar with the process say overseas companies may now be offered majority stakes.

That would further boost potential foreign buyers, whose hands have already been strengthened financially because the Malaysian ringgit has fallen by more than a quarter against the dollar in the past 13 months. All bidders also know that 1MDB needs to make the sale urgently as part of its attempt to control a debt burden that has ballooned above $11 billion.

A cut-price sale to a foreign buyer could jar with the nationalist rhetoric of factions of Mr Najib's United Malays National Organisation, which has grown increasingly strident as the pressure on the prime minister over 1MDB has risen. Umno, which draws most of its support from the country's Malay majority, is facing the most serious threat yet to the political dominance it has enjoyed since Malaysia's independence in 1957.

Read MoreTimeline: The twists and turns in the tale of 1MDB

Mr Najib is embroiled in a spreading controversy over the international dealings of 1MDB, including over bond issues linked to the acquisition of some of the energy assets. The prime minister has faced calls to stand down after allegations emerged in July that almost $700 million of payments made to a bank account in his name were linked to other 1MDB transactions. The claims over the fund and Mr Najib have spawned investigations in the US, Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Both Mr Najib and 1MDB deny wrongdoing. The prime minister says the money sent to his bank account was from an unnamed Middle Eastern donor.

Multiple domestic probes into the affair are also under way in Malaysia. Critics accuse the Malaysian authorities of trying to stifle these by removing investigators from their posts and slapping travel bans on critics in politics and the media.