Jho Low, the billion dollar whale

He is very much the centre of the story, but the supporting cast also includes an impressive list of characters

Title: Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World

Author: Tom Wright, Bradley Hope

Publisher: Hachette Books


There, someone has actually put down in writing, the sprawling tale of what Malaysians know as the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) saga.

The authors Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, have pieced together a tale that is, from the Malaysian reader point of view, both horrific and readable at the same time. Reading its 380 pages is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You cannot turn away even as the authors describe the swindles and scams involving billions of dollars of public Malaysian money.

The whale in the title, according to the urban dictionaries, is one who spends freely and extravagantly, as for luxuries or entertainment, or one who gambles rashly or for high stakes and refers to Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low.

He is very much the centre of the story, but the supporting cast is an impressive list of characters that include Hollywood stars, rap artists, Saudi royals, powerful bankers, as well as a former Malaysian prime minister (PM). All of whom Jho Low knew very well.

For many Malaysians, the plot of the 1MDB scandal is not new. There’s the offshore accounts, the RM2.6 billion deposited into the former PM’s bank account, the partying and the billions siphoned off from 1MDB. What Wright and Hope have done is to hunt down all the details located around the world and flesh out the bare bones that we know into a carefully woven tale of greed, deception and pliant politicians.

The book’s point of view is global and Malaysian readers can be lulled into thinking that the events meticulously pieced together in the narrative happened on some other tropical country.

The story begins on the palm-fringed island of Penang and provide the origins of the Low family, establishing Jho Low as someone willing to present a false front designed to impress — a fixer — as he is described in the book.

The Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World fills in with details that bare bones of what the public knows about the 1MDB scandal, but you will be hard-pressed not to read it as a novel or movie script because it is extremely readable.

The authors pieced together a tale of how Larry Low, Jho Low’s father, carefully planned his family’s upward mobility — which include sending his son to all the right schools in Penang and onwards to London where he befriended one Riza Aziz, who happens to be the stepson of the then Defence Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak. It finally provided an insight as to how Jho Low and Najib became close.

The details in the book are both sordid and comprehensive. The authors, who are reporters for the Wall Street Journal, first covered the story in 2015 when the cracks in 1MDB’s image began showing.

At that time, Najib, who by this time was PM of Malaysia, had threatened to sue the New York paper for its coverage of the brewing scandal “next Tuesday”, but never did until he was voted out in May this year, due in large part to the events that are revealed in this book.

Backed by the investigation of no less than the US Department of Justice, Wright and Hope described money transfers that link 1MDB to the bank accounts of Najib.

Some of these details are already public knowledge in Malaysia, but seeing them in the full context provided by the book is a revelation as pieces fall into place.

“A descent of moral character and greed” that eventually cost Malaysians billions of dollars in debt.

There are a lot of financial transactions and dubious dealmakings, as the authors map out the intricate financial gymnastics in which Jho Low and his conspirators diverted 1MDB money and then struggled to generate profits to cover the gaping holes they left behind in the accounting.

It details how Jho Low asked — and was rejected by — Khazanah Nasional Bhd for broker fees after he put together investment money from the Middle East for the Iskandar Malaysia project, although he also made a lot of money for his company.

“Without producing anything, Jho Low had shown an unusual ability to navigate the chambers of power and persuade investors by holding out the promise of large returns. By 2008, and aged 27, Jho Low was already sitting on a fortune and thus began the string of events that led to the formation of 1MDB and its direct connection to Najib.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

ZB Othman is the editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). The book is distributed by MPH Bookstores at RM79.90. It is available at all leading bookstores nationwide and at TMR offices.