The 1MDB scandal: It's even worse than you thought

  • Sep 14, 2018
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COMMENT | Like many readers, I have followed the 1MDB scandal for years on Clare Rewcastle-Brown's Sarawak Report website, on The Edge (before then premier Najib Razak tried to shut it down), and through The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

So I didn't think I would learn much when I got an advance copy of ‘Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World'. I thought I knew the whole story.

But I was wrong.

The book, which officially will be released in the US and Malaysia on Sept 18, was written by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope of The Wall Street Journal. They were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, America's most prestigious journalism award, for their reporting on 1MDB over the past several years.

The news reports about 1MDB over the past decade came in dribs and drabs, as people discovered new things. But ‘Billion Dollar Whale’ now puts it all in chronological order and explains everything, including the financial details, in very clear English.

It adds lots of new information to the previous reporting. Thanks to their sources, we are able to understand what was going through the minds of Jho Low, Najib, Rosmah Mansor, and so many of the other main characters in the greatest financial heist of the 21st Century. 

It is obvious that the authors had sources who were very close to Jho Low. One they simply call "MS" - Malaysia Source. They also had access to tape recordings of phone conversations plus thousands of emails.

The authors describe in great and fascinating detail how Jho Low, with Najib's connivance, was able to steal over US$5 billion from 1MDB - and therefore from the Malaysian people. Jho Low put Malaysia on the map, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Najib in this book is incompetent and uncaring and doesn't care to learn the details - as long as he gets money for his political purposes, and as long as his wife, Rosmah, is happy and gets what she wants. He knew Jho Low was stealing, but he didn't know how much. As for Rosmah, what mattered most was the millions of dollars worth of Birkin bags and jewellery, funded by money stolen from 1MDB.

There are a number of funny scenes in the book, of Rosmah picking out jewellery, all paid for with the money that Jho Low stole. The authors talk about Imelda Marcos and the 1,100 pairs of shoes that were found after Ferdinand Marco was overthrown in the Philippines.

But even if each pair of shoes was worth US$1,000, that still is only a million dollars. The Malaysian police say that all the "loot" confiscated from the Najib family home and condos added up to US$273 million.

Solid evidence

The authors work for The Wall Street Journal, which together with The New York Times is one of America's greatest newspapers. You don't report something controversial unless the lawyers have gone through everything with a fine-toothed comb.

So when you read ‘Billion Dollar Whale’, you know that you are reading something that is backed up by solid evidence. The lawyers have gone through every single word. At the end of the book, they thank the five - yes, five - lawyers who checked their manuscript.

After reading this book, I reached a number of conclusions. 

One, Jho Low must be brought to justice, whether in Malaysia or the United States. 

Two, both Najib and Rosmah clearly should also face the justice of the Malaysian people.

Plus there are so many other people in Malaysia and around the world who were complicit in allowing this crime against the Malaysian people. 

To me, Najib's and Rosmah's and all of the cronies' complicity is beyond doubt. Not just for defrauding the Malaysian people, but for staining the nation's reputation around the world.

Three, as an American, I am both sad and proud. Sad that some Wall Street banks and law firms were so greedy - more concerned about their fees and profits than ethics and the law. They aided and abetted Jho Low, in exchange for money.

But I also am so proud that in the end, it was the lowly-paid bureaucrats in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Justice Department here in Washington DC who helped bring the whole thing tumbling down and gave credence to the reporting of people like Wright and Hope.

All in all, 'Billion Dollar Whale' is a whale of a tale.

JOHN MALOTT is a former US ambassador to Malaysia.