WSJ journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope present a gripping account of how Jho Low, the mastermind of the 1MDB scam, managed to pull off one of the biggest heists in history.
“For de small stealing dey puts you in jail, soon or late. But for de big stealing dey puts yo’ picture in de paper and yo’ statue in de Hall of Fame when you croaks!” The essence of Jho Low’s story—that is, until his fall from grace became absolute, with the unravelling of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal—is best captured in this quote from American playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, in fact, use a paraphrasing of O’Neill’s famous quote by Bob Dylan (in his song Sweetheart Like You) as the epigraph for their book, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World, which documents Low’s extraordinary rise and fall.
At the outset, however, it is important to make clear, as the authors have done in the prologue, that Billion Dollar Whale may detail Low’s heists, but the story is also of the failure of capitalism and how international finance continues to be the most potent weapon it wields today, as also its Achilles heel. It is the story of Low’s willing and unwitting co-conspirators—a constellation of global capital’s stars, ‘hallowed’ companies, members of the political/cultural/financial elite and many young, hungry individuals who, armed with MBAs from the world’s best universities and working in finance and partying at the most exclusive destinations, aspired to be counted in the top 0.1%. It is the story of the incestuous club of the powerful, where admittance is on the basis of how much financial heft you carry or what you can trade for the right price; one where you can throw obscene piles of greenbacks to get pragmatic scepticism and circumspection to yield.
The first part of Billion Dollar Whale traces Low’s transition from a smooth-talking yet self-conscious heir to a sizeable garment fortune in Penang, Malaysia, (who went to school at the storied Harrow, UK, and later at Wharton, US) to a globe-trotting, white-collar wheeler-dealer who siphoned off $7 billion from 1MDB, an investment fund of the Malaysian government that he had helped create.
Low’s smarts in playing Malaysia’s political elite—chiefly former prime minister and 1MDB chair Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor, Malaysia’s own Imelda Marcos when it came to Birkin bags and other luxe items—his pally yet guarded demeanour and his hunger to strike it rich on the back of the network of the wealthy and powerful, including top investment bankers, west Asian petro-dollar businessmen and royalty, and later Hollywood biggies, are revealed in the book’s pages. None of these traits are unique to Low—indeed, most white-collar crimes and financial scams of recent years have had at their heart one or a handful of impresarios who, if you knew them before they got exposed, would have seemed like the suave, confident go-getters typical of global finance’s workforce.
What sets Low’s case apart is that his first heist put in his hands more liquidity than anyone else had at the time across the world. The scale at which Low was playing the long con was perhaps unprecedented. The most riveting bits in Billion Dollar Whale detail the extravagance, of thought and spending, that Low would put into weaving backstories for himself and his activities. No wonder, prudence was the first thing sent packing as Low pulled off heist after heist—Low, Wright and Hope show through the book, was a victim of the facade he had created. Once a pretend-billionaire, Low would pump in the billions he bilked 1MDB of on gambling in Las Vegas, buying high-value art and property, wining and dining with the who’s who of politics, business and media—the trappings of being, you know, an actual billionaire. The more the gravy train kept rolling, the deeper Low fell through the rabbit hole.
It wasn’t as if he wasn’t aware of how fragile his charmed life was. After all, banking on his Hollywood contacts, he set up a movie production company that produced, ironically, The Wolf of Wall Street, in 2013 based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, who was found guilty of financial crimes in 1999. But all who fall through the rabbit hole are too enraptured by Wonderland, and fall for their own con. The pile of Low’s loot kept getting bigger, and it kept getting harder for him to turn legit. Today, Low has been named an economic offender by the US and Malaysia, and lives the life of a fugitive. Some of his co-conspirators were lucky enough to get out in time, some sank with him—and none more spectacularly than Razak, whose fate was sealed when Malaysians voted with their feet in the last general elections in the country.
If Wright/Hope’s exposé in Wall Street Journal, that led to Low’s world coming undone, is a textbook example of journalistic brilliance, the narration of Low’s story in Billion Dollar Whale is so taut and gripping, it could have passed for prize-winning fiction only if it weren’t excellent reportage. And yet, the absurdity of Low’s story itself will not escape the reader. Distil out the foundation that Low’s con was built on, tweak the structure a bit, and what you will have is the common denominator in all high-profile financial crimes in recent years. But Low conned the world effortlessly—that is, till he couldn’t any further. That global finance couldn’t prevent the 1MDB scandal even though more complicated frauds have preceded it, is amply clear. That l’affaire Low doesn’t mean it can prevent scams in the future is a strong possibility. Does that mean white-collar crime is a systemic problem rather than an aberration?