Co-author of Billion Dollar Whale shares the book’s inspiration
Digging deep into the colourful life of fugitive financier Jho Low and penning an arresting read, co-author of BillionDollar
Whale, Tom Wright, refutes claims that his all-revealing book absolves former premier Dato’ Sri Najib Razak of blame in the scandalous 1MDB saga, writes justin ng “Well everyone has read the PdF,” Tom Wright quips as he addresses the attendees at the launch of Billion Dollar Whale, a bestselling tell-all book on 1MDB which he co-authored with fellow Wall Street Journal journalist Bradley Hope, held at Books Kinokuniya. The PDF he refers to is a leaked copy of the book widely circulated online, partly fuelled by the miscalculation by the distributor, especially here in Malaysia, where paperbacks have been emptied from the shelves by pious bibliophiles the moment they appear.
In attendance, besides the media, are the preeminent newsmakers – Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, Dr Ong Kian Ming, etc. There is even one person who momentarily whips up a ruckus by repeatedly raising the question to Wright to present apodictic evidence in his book that Najib is guilty of corruption. However, he is instantly put down by Wright, who utters, “I am not the prosecutor.” The man makes a hasty retreat upon hearing Wright’s retort.
Billion Dollar Whale, among others, shines the spotlight on Jho Low, a mild-mannered, rotund financier from Penang who is indispensable to the plot. It begins by exploring Jho Low’s ancestry. His grandfather, an immigrant from China, settled down in Penang sometime in the 1960s. His father, Larry, made millions in local garment business. His family was solvent and Jho Low, the youngest of three children, could attend Harrow, a boys-only boarding school in a suburb of London that bears the same name.
“One of the problems with these huge financial scandals like the Panama Papers is that it is very boring to read. You just get pages of pages of money went to this person, money went to that person, somebody is corrupt. There is no narrative to the story,” Wright says.
The seed of the story was sown early during the enlightening exposé on the 1MDB scandal run by The Wall Street Journal. The scandal reverberates around the world, not least for the alleged audacious embezzlement of funds in a series of shadowy dealings that crossed geographical boundaries, partly contributing to the surprised loss of the Najibled coalition in Malaysia’s latest election, confiscations of assets bought with laundered funds, investigations into financial institutions that aided in facilitating money laundering, among others.
To bedeck the story with intrigue, the authors knew they had to depart from merely linking the money trails and seasoned them with cold hard facts. They needed scenes to help conjuring imagery in the head, to make it more colourful, thrilling like a Stephen King epic. Then as they discovered more and more, they began to piece it all together.
“It is really a biography of Jho Low, which is the main narrative structure. Then there is a bunch of sub-themes – global finance, how he could buy his way into Hollywood if he had enough money. We worked out all the scenes. For example, we got hold of Red Granite’s emails. In the contact book of Red Granite were all the cell phone numbers of Hollywood stars and all the cell phone numbers of playmates these guys liked to hang around with. So we called 30 Playboy playmates,” Wright says.
“Out of the 30 who we called, two of them said, ‘I remember Jho Low. We went to his birthday party at the Palazzo.’ That was really the process of processing scenes, finding and getting documents and tying it to the UAE ambassador to the US, a very important figure in Jho Low’s rise. We knew that because of (Yousef Al) Otaiba’s emails. He was involved in the
blockade of Qatar. We had to build up scenes by this kind of reporting. Once we had the scenes and timeline in place, we tried to put them together in a narrative.”
Red Granite Pictures was co-founded by Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz and it produced the award-winning film The Wolf of Wall Street, which ironically tells the story of a Wall Street stockbroker whose unscrupulous practice landed him in jail. According to Wall Street Journal news report by Wright and Hope, companies connected to Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the US, received US$66 million from offshore companies that investigators in the US and Singapore said contained funds misappropriated from 1MDB.
“What happens here isn’t just a Malaysian story,” Wright says. “Bernie Madoff took 40 years to lose US$18 billion of investors’ money and he was worth around US$800 million by the end of his fraud. Jho Low allegedly took US$700 million overnight on the first day of the fraud. This was not the money that would have existed if it was not raised on the international market. He had the ability to raise so much money because the interest rates were so low after the (2008 global) financial crisis.”
He opines Najib knew 1MDB was a slush fund by pointing out that the former premier’s defence has always been “I didn’t take it for personal gains” and that in his mind, he took it for UMNO. “But that doesn’t explain the US$27 million jewel for (Datin Sri) Rosmah (Mansor, Najib’s wife), the film company for her son (Riza), the house in Belgravia, the house in Central Park and all these things. But I do think Najib was probably shocked when he found out when the US Department of Justice said US$4.5 billion had gone missing, because I think he wasn’t paying attention (and that) he wasn’t running the fund. He allowed the (then) 27-year-old who just got out of Wharton with no practical experience to run a sovereign wealth fund,” Wright says.
The belief of Jho Low is the one
“IT IS REALLY A BIOGRAPHY OF JHO LOW, WHICH IS THE MAIN NARRATIVE STRUCTURE. THEN THERE IS A BUNCH OF SUBTHEMES”
who has the full picture formed the basis for Billion Dollar Whale and the decision to have him as the “lead”.
“1MDB and the scandal wouldn’t have happened without him. He went to Wharton. He took a semester off. He met Otaiba. He saw what Mubadala (Development, an Abu Dhabibased state-owned company) was doing. He saw how these sovereign wealth funds were hugely powerful. He wanted to do one in Malaysia. He got the (then) prime minister to do it. Then he did a series of crazy, unbelievable things, including a Chinese state-owned company to do corrupt deals and skimming more money. So he is a phenomenally-interesting character. Najib is a little less so, maybe,” Wright says.
When asked if the book absolves Najib of any blame as suggested by critics, Wright clarifies, “I don’t think it is right to absolve Najib of any blame. He is an enabler of Jho Low.”
JHO LOW PICTURED WITH PARIS HILTON
JOEY MCFARLAND, MARGOT ROBBIE, LEONARDO DICAPRIO & RIZA AZIZ
EQUANIMITY – A 300FT YACHT BELIEVED TO HAVE BEEN ACQUIREDWITH MISAPPROPRIATED FUNDS
LEONARDO DICAPRIO STARS AS BELFORTIN THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
TRX’S MASTER DEVELOPER IS FORMERLY A SUBSIDIARY OF 1MDB BEFORE IT WAS TRANSFERRED TO THEMINISTRY OF FINANCE