Since the publication of All The President’s Men, Barbarians At The Gate and Too Big To Fail, there have been few books of this genre that have gripped the imagination of the reader – until the arrival of Billion Dollar Whale. A ‘whale’ is a high rolling gambler who consistently wagers large amounts of money. High rollers often receive lavish “comps” from casinos to lure them onto the gambling floors, such as free private jet transfers, limousine use and use of the casinos’ best suites.
Acclaimed journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope combine to deliver a jaw dropping tour de force that elucidates how the impudence of a rogue individual, the intransigence at the highest levels of a rotten kleptocracy and the greedy ingenuity of a Wall Street behemoth, all combined to pull off, what arguably has to be the most brazen heist in financial history.
Swindler, Fixer, Wheeler-Dealer, Compulsive liar, and globe trotter, Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) first appeared as a simmering mist when rumours regarding a possible swindling of money from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1 Malaysia Berhad (“1MDB” for short) began doing the rounds. As tumultuous events subsequently demonstrated in horrific detail, this was no swindling of a routine run-of-the-mill nature associated with the functioning of a Government fund. As Mr. White and Mr. Hope detail with extraordinary clarity, 1MDB was representative of a total collapse of governance at multiple levels. It was a gargantuan vehicle of personal convenience whose wheels were greased by the lubricants of graft. 1MBD was a mother lode of all scams that ultimately resulted in the toppling (for the first time ever) of the kleptocratic United Malys National Organisation (“UMNO”) and its strong man, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. At the eye of the storm was Low Taek Jho.
Ambitious and eager to make his mark in the world of the nouveax rich, Jho Low, an alumnus of Harrow and Wharton, banking on his Ivy League Networks persuaded the Prime Minister of Malaysia to set up a sovereign wealth fund to be named 1MDB. The fund was to partner with PetroSaudi, a company ostensibly owned by a member of Saudi Royalty, Prince Turki. What followed as Mr. White and Hope illustrate in all its grisly detail is a complex, convoluted and conniving structure that resulted in multiple companies being incorporated in various tax havens across the globe through which moneys originally intended to fill the coffers of the fund were systematically and ruthlessly siphoned off by Jho Low and his associates.
The con-man proceeded to spray his loot on excesses that are hard to imagine. For instance, to celebrate his thirty-first birthday, Jho Low not only stayed at the $25,000 per night Chairman Suites of the fifth Floor of the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, he also arranged a grand celebration that had for attendance, Swizz Beatz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Di Caprio, Benicio Del Toro, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, Chris Brown and- hold your breath- Britney Spears popping out of a faux cake to wish Low a happy birthday!
This elevation of Jho Low – who otherwise would be deemed to be a parvenu within the circles of an elite – from a virtual nobody into a uber rich multi-billionaire splurging $250 million on a luxury yacht Equanimity or $8 million on acquiring jewelry to impress his could be girlfriend Miranda Kerr, was facilitated by a phalanx of unscrupulous characters who in a Faustian bargain sacrificed sense at the altar of greed.
At the very apex of the pyramid was the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. Although unaware of the insidious depth of Jho Low’s macabre motives, the politician was none too averse to utilize public funds to both further his electoral prospects and to satiate the inexorable material needs of his high spending, preening and strutting wife, Rosmah Mansor. Having set up a ‘secret’ account for the Prime Minister with Ambank, a bank that had ANZ Grindlays as its largest shareholder, in March 2013, “Jho Low sent a BlackBerry message to Joanna Yu, an employee at Ambank in Kuala Lumpur, warning her that “681 American Pies” would soon be arriving from overseas into an account known as “AMPRIVATE BANKING – MR”. Very soon a whopping sum of $681 million made its way into the designated account to be used for the purposes of bolstering the chances of the Prime Minister in the ensuing elections of 2013.
The stash accumulated by Rosmah Mansor was to say the least – jaw dropping! “Police raided Kuala Lumpur apartment units owned by Najib’s family and carted out $274 million worth of items, including 12,000 pieces of jewelry, 567 handbags and 423 watches, as well as $28 million in cash.”
To drum up the money for 1MBD, and in the process, to obtain their own significant cut, was the ruthless Wall Street Banking giant Goldman Sachs. The duo of ‘Dr.’ Timothy Leissner, the flamboyant playboy and Chairman, South East Asia, and Andrea Vella, Head of Goldman structured finance business in Asia, who between them, ensured that, “in total over just twelve months, the bank had earned nearly $600 million from selling three bonds for the 1MDB Fund – two hundred times the typical fee.”
A Board of puppets and toothless tigers at 1MDB headed by Shahrol Halmi, merely rubber stamping the orders of Jho Low and the Prime Minister contributed to a great extent to the continuing pillage. When a contentious Mohammed Bakke Salleh, the Chairman of the Fund started raising suspicions, he was promptly removed and replaced by another pliant loyalist. It beggars belief that the administration and investment decisions of a sovereign wealth fund were left to the whimsical tastes of a raw, inexperienced and inveterate pilferer!
Three different auditing firms – part of the Big 4s – that completely failed in their duties to detect brazen round tripping and non-existent redemption of funds from obscure Cayman Island accounts.
The bankers themselves who compromised on all scruples at the prospect of personal enrichment. Yak, a banker with the BSI Group in Singapore, “began to take home around $5 million a year in salary and bonuses, more than five times his previous earnings, binding him to Low, the money and adulation too alluring to turn down.”
Finally, the man’s insatiable desire to be drenched in fortune and drown in fame led to a rampant fostering of greed which no amount of monetary resources could curb. Spending a staggering $85 million “on alcohol, gambling in Vegas, private jets, renting superyachts, and to pay Playboy Playmates and Hollywood celebrities to hang out with them”; renting “a suite of rooms that cost $100,000 per month”; “…acquired a condominium in New York’s Park Laurel Building…for $36 million; spending “2 million euros on champagne” in one single night at Saint-Tropez; funding Red Granite a production company co-owned by Riza Aziz, the step-son of Najib Razak and Joey McFarlane that produced the Martin Scorsese directed “Wolf of Wall Street.”
The heady intoxication fueled by laundered money now began seeping into the exotic world of art. “In all between May and September 2013, Low, via Tanore, bought $137 million in art. But Low had picked up more…. such as the Van Gogh, as well as works by Lichtenstein, Picasso and Warhol, and by the end of the year he possessed art worth an estimated $330 million.” These precious acquisitions were stashed in the secretive entrepots of the Geneva Freeport – a sanctuary for preserving the material possessions of the ‘uberelite’, way beyond the prying eyes of the taxman.
Mr. White and Mr. Hope have left no stone unturned in their quest to both unearth and unleash the truth. They have done a fabulous job at that! The narrative is laid out in a matter of fact, bare bones manner with neither an intention to sensationalize things nor to take biased sides. The research is maddeningly methodical and unbelievably extensive. One can only imagine the two intrepid journalists sifting through what must have been an Everest of physical and digital depositories! This sure is an 8848 meter research of exemplary calibre!
When the dust finally settled on the pilfering, plunder and pillage, 1MDB was in debt to the tune of a whopping $10 billion with Low and his associates vanishing into thin air. At the time of this review, Low is a wanted fugitive with an Interpol notice hanging over his head like a Damocles sword. Swiftly running out of options, the net of justice and the harpoons of infernal hell seem to be closing down upon this invidious whale!