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Book Review - Billion Dollar Whale

Written by Rashi Chandok

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

1MDB Scandal has graced the headlines of all major newspapers of the world for the past few

years, enticing readers to figure out how this elaborate scheme took place. This book provides one

of the most detailed and well-researched accounts of the entire episode. Written in the form of

short chapters, it makes for an engaging and effortless read. The authors have used a few simple

tactics (providing an index for all the major individuals involved along with their relation to the

1MDB scandal, mentioning the designation and history of an individual each time their name

reappears in the book, explaining the political intricacies and history of a country, etc) to make

sure that a person unaware of the geopolitical scenario can also comprehend the vast scale and

scope of this shocking tale.

“How he (Jho Low) thrived, and what it says about the failure of global capitalism, is the subject of this book.”

Low Taek Jho - “Jho Low”, the product of a society preoccupied with wealth and glamor, is at the

center of this story. Tracing his life, from childhood to the revelation of his role in the scandal,

this book provides insight into his character, ambitions, and motivation for pulling this scheme


“Low was not so much timid as quietly calculating, as if computing every human interaction, sizing up what he could provide for someone and what they, in turn, could do for him.”
“He intuitively understood that people desire to feel important, part of an exclusive club, and he played on it.”

1MDB Scandal Explanation

1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) describes a vast corruption, bribery, and money

laundering scandal in which funds were appropriated from the Sovereign Wealth Fund of

Malaysia by Jho Low for his use as well as for the benefit of his associates (including the Prime

Minister of Malaysia - Najib Razak and his family). Jho Low’s close association with the Razak

family provided him free reign to run this fund despite him being a very young businessman with

hardly any accomplishments. He took out billions of dollars from this fund for his personal

advancement and enjoyment without caring about the development of his country (for which this

fund was set up) or its citizens (who would be burdened with repaying this money). This scheme

highlights how the greed of a selfish few can destroy the lives and livelihoods of an entire country.

there was basically no independent oversight of the prime minister, Low, and his

allies in 1MDB’s management.”

Low’s strategies that helped him in successfully running this scheme

● Manipulating the narration about his family’s wealth according to convenience - Low

projected the stolen money as his family wealth in the US and other countries despite his

family not being anywhere close to the level of richness that he flaunted. Also, to avoid

issues in Malaysia where people were aware of the status of his family, he distanced

himself from the lavish parties and his frivolous spending by claiming that the money

belonged to his rich Middle Eastern connections.

● Growing close ties with powerful Middle Eastern and other international connections -

Low deliberately cultivated friendships with people of power who could help him in his

schemes. He understood that people in such high places would be happy to turn a blind

eye to his workings as long as they were handsomely compensated.

● Forming companies with names similar to famous organizations and projecting them to

be backed by powerful individuals - helped him to avoid suspicion by a lot of banks and


● Not putting his name in any official documentation or taking an official position in any

organization. Low was smart enough to recognize that he can successfully run his deceit

by tackling all affairs from the backseat.

● Controlling the mainstream media through the government - Low relied on Najib to make

sure that no negative press about the 1MDB was published which helped in preventing

any independent questioning or public outcry for a long time.

● Defeating a bank’s compliance program - Smoothening out any issues raised by banks for

transfers or account openings were handled by Low by providing plausible explanations.

He also tested the bank’s systems by transferring low amounts and getting the all-clear

before passing large transactions.

“The group agreed Low would persuade Prime Minister Najib to write off hundreds of millions of dollars of 1MDB’s investment as a loss. Low acted as if this was make-believe money, debt that Najib could erase with a magic wand, withoutany cost to taxpayers or society.”

Learning Points

● Failure of compliance leads to the success of financial crime - A lot of red flags ignored by

institutions could have easily been prevented if a good compliance system was in place.

Also, Jho Low could get a lot done from global institutions and powerful government

figures by offering them a piece of the action which highlights the lack of accountability in

the public as well as the private sector.

● Only a few individuals pay the price - As is evident from the outcome of this scandal, a lot

of people including the Saudi royals, the Low family, individual bankers, etc. did not have

to face the brunt of their actions. An example has been made of a few select individuals

but the majority who enjoyed the spoils of this fraud are free from any consequences.

● Secrecy promotes misdeeds - Offshore accounts along with unregulated precious jewels,

art, and real estate businesses give a lot of opportunities to wealthy individuals to hide

their wealth which harms the global economy.

● Better regulation is needed for election donation/funds - A candidate is compelled to

meet people because they donate to his/her election campaigns creating a lot of ethical


● Banks need to tighten their systems - An individual whose account is not opened due to

any issue should automatically not be able to maintain an account with any other

segment of the same bank. As the book points out, Jho Low was rejected for a private

wealth account with Goldman however, the bank continued to provide him access to

various other services.

● Audit firms being replaceable if they give an unfavorable opinion is a challenge that needs

to be looked at - The fact that audit firms can be easily switched if they do not have a

favorable opinion of the organization without making anything public helps companies

hide their wrongdoings. There should be a mechanism for enhanced scrutiny on firms

that frequently replace their auditors to make it harder to get away with schemes like the


● Clear signs of kleptocracy like Rosmah’s penchant for shopping and buying jewels should

be questioned rather than swallowing preposterous explanations.

● Issues faced by developing countries (like brain drain) will persist if leaders don’t make

an honest effort of improving their own countries and economies.

● Transparency in beneficial ownership is needed to reduce the investments of criminal

money made through offshore companies.

● Individual accountability needs to be imposed for white-collar crimes rather than

reaching deals with banks to defer prosecution in return for hefty fines because it does

little to alter the behavior of bankers.

“Everyone was aware that Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, demanded kickbacks from businesses for granting everything from gambling licenses to infrastructure contracts. The situation stirred in him (Low) a moral relativism. If everyone was taking a cut, then what was the problem?”

The book explains Low’s longing to be cool and makes it apparent that his lavish parties were an

excuse to feel like an important person of power. His risk-taking attitude, schemes, and carefree

outlook might have helped him in this heist however, the book makes it clear that a lot of luck

was involved in keeping a lid on it for this long. The disregard for public funds in the minds of

Jho Low as well as a lot of his accomplices is striking. The book helps the reader to understand

how people committing crimes justify their actions to themselves and the world as mere methods

of making money for their families.

The authors deserve a big round of applause for going through heaps of data and finally providing

us with a truly reliable and extensively researched version of events that took place. I particularly

liked the background information provided for explaining the motives of all the important people

in the book. The appreciation that the authors display for the few courageous citizens of Malaysia

who raised their voices as well as for the staff of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission who

helped by providing data held with them, clearly shows the subtle message of this book i.e. the

world can change only if we try to bring about a change.

Although the book leaves you with a disheartened feeling of knowing that there is a different

world and a separate set of laws for the wealthy/privileged as compared to the common man, it

provides you with a sense of purpose to hold the government and the people holding power in

your country accountable for their deeds and laws approved by them because only a vigilant

public can create a corruption-free nation!


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