Book Review: Definitive Dual Account of Malaysia’s 1MDB Scandal

In 2014, speaking about what would become the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, Democratic Action Party media star Tony Pua, then in opposition, called 1Malaysia Development Bhd “the mother of the mother of the mother of all scandals.” At the time, I thought he might have gone one mother too many. Now it seems he went one mother too few, or maybe several mothers too few.

In a country where massive scandal has become an enduring phenomenon, 1MDB stands alone. In fact it may be the biggest financial scandal anywhere over the past several decades.

It would probably still be percolating if it hadn’t been for Clare Rewcastle Brown, an indefatigable journalist based in the UK with an agenda to save the environment in Sarawak. As she writes in her book, she became curious about Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson, Riza Aziz, as one of the forces behind Red Granite Productions, and the activities of Jho Low, who was spending insanely on champagne and starlets.

“I knew I had a connection that could reach into the heart of the corruption of the political establishment and that the whole story was now embellished by the tinseled trappings of a Hollywood setting,” she wrote.

Brown never stopped digging. Eventually as she assumed additional prominence, she was contacted by a Swiss “entrepreneur” named Xavier Justo who had much of the key to the establishment of an obscure middle eastern oil exploration company named PetroSaudi. Justo, in a squabble over remuneration, appropriated the company’s server, with hundreds of thousands of emails laying out the story of massive fraud. Justo had the electronic keys to the kingdom. PetroSaudi was integral to the scam that Jho Low perpetrated, and from which as much as US$7 billion disappeared.

That isn’t to say that Justo’s decision to contact her formed the story. Brown, who had worked as an investigative reporter for the BBC and other television outlets in the UK, never stopped digging. What she dug up would form the basis for stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and a long list of other publications. Given the opprobrium in which journalists are held today, these authors deserve every bit of praise heaped on them.

The Journal’s reporters benefited hugely from Brown’s work, and they give her credit in their book, although there are some who feel she didn’t get enough credit. But in any case, as the scandal over 1MDB unfolded, it became clear that Brown and the others who worked on the story had an astonishing story to tell. Brown, working without resources, faced considerable legal and physical threats in order to produce a book that played a major role in bringing down the Malaysian government. The Journal’s reporters also faced threats.

As Brown and the Journal reporters lay it out in their respective books – and both are required reading, each an adjunct to the other – what comes clear is that from the start, Jho Low never seemed to have the slightest idea of setting up an ongoing investment fund that would benefit Malaysia. His confederates, Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, knew they would benefit from what was outright theft. They intended to steal all the money. And Goldman Sachs, Wall Street’s premier investment fun, would benefit handsomely from the theft. All four, along with several others, are under an enormous cloud.

The first billion dollars that Jho Low generated didn’t go into investment to benefit the people of Malaysia. It went into a BVI company he created and was stolen outright, to fund an astonishing display by the pudgy youth.

And what a display that was. Over the years, as others have reported, the profligacy he and the Najib family indulged in was legendary, with homes in New York and Beverly Hills, with so many diamonds on Rosmah that she glittered like an iceberg in the sun, with yachts and airplanes and huge gambling debts in Las Vegas. At one point, Jho Low accidentally dropped US$50,000 in chips on the floor and never noticed until an amazed bystander pointed it out.

But that wasn’t the half of it. One incident, by Wright and Hope, stands out: Jho Low steps off a yacht with a Taiwanese starlet in tow, onto a Middle Eastern beach decorated with a large heart formed with burning candles. Behind the candles is a formal dinner table. Jho Low conducts the starlet to the table. Later a helicopter flies over, disgorging two parachutists who land in the heart – wearing tuxedoes. They march to the starlet and present her with a gift from Chopard. And, as Wright and Hope write, it wasn’t even an engagement party. It was just a date.

Millions, perhaps billions, disappeared into a level of excess that made a burlesque of The Wolf of Wall Street, the biopic of the disgraced stock trader Jordan Belfort that was too raunchy to be shown in Malaysia. The hangers-on who parade through the pages are Paris Hilton, Leonardo DeCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Alecia Keyes, Miranda Kerr and scores more of starlets, con men, bankers, oil sheikhs, politicians and tycoons, led on a merry chase by a portly Chinese willing to stump up a stolen fortune for entertainment.

Supposedly an investment wizard and a graduate of Wharton, Jho Low showed no wizardry at all. He ended – with considerable help from Najib and his avaricious wife – the 60-year run for political primacy in Malaysia of the United Malays National Organization. By the time the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit got finished totaling up the loot, Najib’s days as a golfer with then President Barack Obama were over.

UMNO and the Barisan Nasional would lose the May 2018 election and Najib and Rosmah and a flock of others would be arrested. De Caprio had to give back the gifts Jho Low had bought him. Eventually, the gumshoes caught up with Jho Low’s 300-foot yacht Equanimity and repossessed it for Malaysia, who put it up for sale. Jho Low is somewhere on the run in China, probably enjoying a considerable stash of the billions stolen from the Malaysian people.

It was a whirlwind ride, and it is strikingly told in these two books, both worth a read because it takes the two to tell the story from different sides. It is unfortunate that neither features an index or bibliography. One gets the sense that the book by Wright and Hope was written to be turned into a movie script, which would be ironic, given how much a part the Wolf of Wall Street plays in both books.