Saturday, 10 November 2018

Whale Of A Scam

To say Malaysians were hyped about Billion Dollar Whale is an understatement. Thank goodness for 9 May, otherwise we'd never get our hands on books like it. But the unexpected GE14 results delayed the release.

"When we first wrote it, (former prime minister Datuk Seri) Najib Tun Razak was still in power," co-author Tom Wright told The Star, "we had to change the ending. We never thought the book would ever be released in Malaysia. We thought perhaps, we would be selling copies from Changi Airport."

Nor did the publisher expect the book to zip off the shelves. The first several weeks stocks kept running out. Lines of people stretched outside the local Kinokuniya waiting for autographs by Wright when he dropped by. A pirated digital file of the book circulated on WhatsApp was later revealed to be an earlier edition, sans the GE14 aftermath.

(Someone even reviewed the pirated e-book on Goodreads and got called out by Wright. That a stolen copy of a book about stolen billions is being read and circulated might be a reason this scam was possible.)

To be expected, I guess. A senior figure in local publishing thinks it's because Malaysians love reading about themselves, especially when written by Mat Sallehs. As is the case with this book about the 1MDB heist by Wright and co-author Bradley Hope, both journalists from the Wall Street Journal.

Instead of boring money flows or dry blow-by-blow reporting, what we have is a gripping, cinematic financial thriller that sucks you in within a few pages, regardless of where you open it - not the ending, please. That's how I ended up reading it twice, cover to cover.

The focus is more on how the plot unfolded, even as the main characters are fleshed out. The protagonist is the titular whale, Low Taek Jho, now better known as Jho Low, thanks to, among other things, reports of his wild profligate parties and a track called "Check My Steezo".

The prologue, describing Low's decadent Las Vegas birthday party in November 2012 that stunned even the now-late host of the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, sets readers up for the displays of debauchery and ostentation to come.

On campus, [Low] drove around in a maroon-red SC-430 Lexus convertible, which he had leased but passed off as his own. He deliberately didn’t correct rumors that he was a “prince of Malaysia”, a claim that made the other Malaysian students laugh when they heard it.

Wright and Hope trace the rise and fall of 1MDB and its players, with Low in the centre. Just about everyone is here: his immediate family, his collaborators, and those who helped to unravel the scheme.

In the book, Low is portrayed as a bullshit artist who could sniff out rich, powerful yet gullible patrons for his schemes, dazzling them and his collaborators with his charm, other people's money and his connections with celebrities, artistes and assorted power brokers.

He started young, from online masquerades to passing off a family friend's yacht as his. Parental influence is cited as another factor; his dad Larry Low may have cultivated Jho Low's social-climbing tendencies by sending him to Harrow, and then Wharton, to cosy up with scions of the elite. One of those Wharton connections led him to the Middle East and planted the seed of what would end up being the biggest kleptocracy case in history.

I had few nits to pick with this book. It is the hot read we've been promised, and it's such a rollicking ride from start to finish you barely notice the typos, no doubt due to the rush to release it for the Malaysian and Singaporean markets. Even those well acquainted with the scandal will be whisked away, breathless as they try to keep up with the heart-thumping kin cheong pace.

No surprise many readers are outraged, disgusted and dismayed. The whale and his fellows used the global financial system and the help of greedy bank executives to put up Malaysia's natural wealth as collateral for cash that went to extravagant, eye-watering spending sprees at nighclubs, designer boutiques, jewellers, casinos, hotels, art auctions and real estate markets; producing a movie about financial fraud, believe it or not; and possible attempts to rig an election.

And we could be footing the bill for years. a cascade of bad luck, taking all of ten minutes, [Jho Low] lost $2 million. The stunned entourage couldn’t compute the way he parted with money—seemingly without breaking a sweat—and some began to whisper about this guy, and how he acted like the cash wasn’t his own.

Speculation about Low's motives are rife, but I think bukan duit punya pasal je. The authors' profile of him suggests a guy who wants more than what money can buy. And what's better than being the sun of his own galaxy, the fairy godfather of the top one per cent, the genie to these upper-upper-crust Aladdins?

The billions he allegedly stole let him play that role, but how he went about it, like he did with the 1MDB caper, was crude. If he couldn't throw money at a problem, he would try to talk his way out of it, or rely on the clout of his influential friends.

Reading about the excesses is like witnessing a Lovecraftian beast feeding itself with humongous fistfuls of humans: maddening, horrific, gory, yet so fascinating that one is compelled to watch with clenched jaws as it shambles along, leaving destruction and despair in its wake.

But the beast was careless, and for that it would be taken down. Almost all the perpetrators soared stratosphere-high before exploding spectacularly and crashing to earth like spent bottle rockets.

As in most crime thrillers, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are. This is the Jho Low, Najib and Rosmah many of us have come to hate. The at-times cartoonish villainy of culprits here earn them no sympathy and all the derision we can muster, to the point we forget that for all their faults, they are still people.

Other allegations such as the murder of Kevin Morais and UMNO-BN campaigning in GE13 with 1MDB money spice things up, raising the book's popularity among those who already assume the worst of them. Is there more to the tale? How much did the authors omit to keep the book at a mere 379 pages?

...Low would offer [Jordan] Belfort $500,000 to attend an event in Las Vegas with [Leonardo] DiCaprio. Red Granite had paid him handsomely for the rights to his memoir. But Belfort was starting to distrust this group. Eager to stay out of trouble, Belfort turned them down...

Damn kwa cheong hijinks with billions of brazenly stolen dollars leave us gasping, time and again, "No way all of this is true." The authors say it is, backed up by dozens of interviews and piles of documents, records and correspondence the DOJ is using to make their case, with editorial and legal oversight from the WSJ.

And it seems Wright had said the book was written for the sake of the story, not to rescue Malaysia or for a movie deal, and he was uncomfortable with the notion that he and Hope "saved" the country with it.

But wouldn't the publication of this book prejudice the ongoing 1MDB case? So far only several people have been formally charged by the United States' DOJ. Or is it fine because the guilt of the thieves have long been established?

At least, the guilty plea by former Goldman Sachs executive Tim Leissner suggests there is some truth to the allegations, and it looks like he's started spilling tea.

I am also a little annoyed by the author's descriptions of "palm-fringed" Penang and "jungle-covered" Sarawak, as if this part of the world is still Noel Barber's exotic, inscrutable patch of green. Environmental NGOs might argue to the contrary.

The authors' real-life thriller approach has paid off, but I won't blame those who feel the book is a hit job. At some point I wonder if the authors are as guilty of exaggerations as Low. For one, Malaysian officials smuggling files locked with the password "SaveMalaysia"? Why not just go with "HelpMe06biWanKenOBIYouAreMyON1yHopE"? #UseStrongPasswords.

If it gets Malaysians to read...

[1MDB] was supposed to have created jobs for Malaysians, but instead would be a burden on state finances for years to come. Most of the borrowings weren’t due for repayment for a few years, but 1MDB’s debt was a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off in the future.

Months after publication, whale fever hasn't abated - how else to explain why Kinokuniya is always "out of stock" every time I go there? (I know my luck isn't great but come on!) Also, the leviathan is still at large. The scheduled release of a Malay-language edition this month, the upcoming movie adaptation, and latest developments in the investigation are keeping temperatures high too.

Perhaps miffed that her victory lap was overshadowed by the hype over Billion Dollar Whale, Clare Rewcastle-Brown of Sarawak Report has accused Wright, Hope and their paper of not being honest about the source of their 1MDB reporting, plus other stuff. And who knew she had plans to shoot her own "how I broke the case" blockbuster?

(They did credit Sarawak Report for breaking "the first stories on Jho Low" and stated that it "was an important resource for us", but that probably wasn't enough.)

Whistleblower Xavier Justo meanwhile has disputed some of the details in the book regarding himself and announced that he's going to pen his account of what happened. However I look at it, it was about the money (not a cent less or more than what he believed his old bosses owed him) until - from what I could gather from this interview - he became a dad and, later, was convinced to do the right thing by Sarawak Report and The Edge.

And no one is blind to the whale-sized void in the narrative of how a supposed tukang kelentong from Penang managed to get Wall Street, Hollywood, and the world to dance to his tune, past raised flags, gatekeepers and blaring alarms.

How far did the con go? Who else was involved but not named? Why did Low do it? Why, as Wright asked, did he not stop when the financial hole got too big? Why didn't he put that money to work instead of living large? Given his pull, he could've gotten qualified professionals to manage and invest those billions.

It’s easy to sneer at Malaysia as a cesspool of graft, but that misses the point. None of this could have happened without the connivance of scores of senior executives ... Low straddled both these worlds—Malaysia and the West—and he knew exactly how to game the system.

What little that's published of him so far does not indicate any inclination towards candour. Nor should we expect any writing flair from his lawyers or PR advisers, who I expect will ditch him once what remains of his money runs out, or if the evidence piles up.

If that happens, wouldn't it be ironic if he ultimately had to approach the guys who helped expose him to write his side of the story?

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

Tom Wright and Bradley Hope
Hachette Books
379 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-45347-9


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