If you like global intrigue, financial crime, wealth porn, and absurdity, “Billion Dollar Whale,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is for you. It’s the story of Jho Low, an enterprising businessman from Malaysia who used his social connections to the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak to transform himself into an international financier. According to Wright and Hope’s account, Low persuaded Razak to create an investment fund, 1MDB, financed with government money, which Low managed behind the scenes. Goldman Sachs and other banks helped raise ten billion dollars for the fund. Then approximately five billion dollars of the money disappeared, prompting an international scandal.
Five billion is a large sum, perhaps too much to easily dispense with in a short amount of time, but the book’s opening scene offers an idea of where it went. In November, 2012, the sweaty, awkward Low threw himself a thirty-first birthday party, in Las Vegas. The guests included the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, the actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio del Toro, and many unnamed beautiful women, and all were chauffeured by limousine to a night club that had been transformed into a circus-party space, where Cristal flowed like water. There, more celebrities appeared, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, along with investment bankers who had worked with Low. Low was gifted three Ducati motorcycles and a two-and-a-half-million-dollar sports car. The high point came when Britney Spears jumped out of a giant birthday cake wearing a skimpy gold outfit. The whole thing is so tacky and over the top it almost seems made up.
Still, anyone who has followed the news out of Malaysia will know that the story is all too real. Razak was recently arrested on corruption charges related to the missing billions—he has pleaded not guilty on all counts—and the new Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was elected in May, pledges to bring reform and transparency to the troubled government. Low, meanwhile, has been accused of spending money on parties, high-end American real estate, and the production of Hollywood movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He remains at large.