When the notorious Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, baulks at a money-making scheme, you know the story is bound to end badly for those involved.
At the heart of the well-documented scandal of the 1MDB fund stands soft-spoken business school graduate Low Taek Jho – better known globally as Jho Low – who put his gift of the gab to great use to live a life of obscene luxury.
The quiet man from Penang had spent his life struggling with deep-seated insecurities and trying to convince others to see him as he ideally saw himself. Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s incredible Billion Dollar Whale meticulously details the rise of the obscure Jho Low, a man whose dreams lay far beyond his talents.
A tale of twists and turns describes governmental and institutional corruption and how the ambitious dreamer was able to gain access to US$700mil (RM2.9bil at today’s rates) in the beginning of what would be Malaysia’s biggest international scandal to date. The pseudo-suave audacity of the 20-something heir to a garment fund provided the young Penangite with access to more liquid cash than anyone else in the world.
As he splashed mountains of cash around in attempts to buy celebrity friends and score social value, one of Jho Low’s many ideas was to create the movie production company that would go on to buy the rights to The Wolf Of Wall Street, the memoir of disgraced former stockbroker Belfort that was published in 2007. Forming the basis for the similarly named movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese, the memoir tells the story of how Belfort becomes entangled in a torrid web of endless greed and decadent pleasure that eventually sees him serving jail time for fraud.
It was at a lavish US$3mil (RM12.4mil) event organised by Jho Low that Belfort immediately recognised that things weren’t what they seemed to be. Turning to his partner at the time, he reportedly said, “This is a f***ing scam – anybody who does this has stolen money.... You wouldn’t spend money you worked for like that.”
Billion Dollar Whale tracks how this baby-faced con-man manages to dupe several high-profile businessmen – including those with ties to Saudi Arabian royalty – to create the 1MDB scandal that US federal agents say will become the textbook case of financial fraud in the modern age.
The sheer speed at which the 1MDB fund was set up should have been enough to ring the alarm bells loudly. It took just one month to complete a process that can take up to a year to get through due diligence and other legal checks that are required for such a grand scheme. As a 1MDB employee later described it, the setting up of the fund was akin to “attempting to read the entire works of Shakespeare in an hour”.
It sounds like a work of fiction, and yet the puppet master from Penang was able to convince high profile bankers from sophisticated financial institutions to pump billions into shell companies situated in tax havens across the globe. And for then-Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, 1MDB seemed the perfect platform upon which to build his political capital.
In the end, though, the 1MDB scheme would become the beacon that shined a light on Malaysia’s corruption on the global stage. It was reporting by Wright and Hope, two Wall Street Journal journalists, that initially exposed the shady deals behind the funds – stories that saw them as finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Wright and Hope’s incredible work is the realisation that, while a few key players were at the core of a nation’s largest financial scandal, a toxic culture had to be in existence for such a plan to succeed (at least initially).
As Malaysians read this eye-opening account of shady deals, corruption, naivete and greed, they will no doubt ponder how their country ever got to this point. If the leaders of a nation reflect the society they’re elected to govern, Billion Dollar Whale presents the ugly truth of certain social norms that surely need to be addressed if Malaysia has any hope of truly finding its place in the developed world.
Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, And The World
Authors: Tom Wright & Bradley Hope
Publisher: Hatchette Books, nonfiction