Tom Wright: "Writing 'Billion Dollar Whale' has been the highlight of my career"

The Wall Street Journal writer says it would be fascinating to come face to face with Jho Low.

WSJ journalist and co-author of Billion Dollar Whale Tom Wright (Photo: Haris Hassan/The Edge)

The most amazing thing about the Low Taek Jho, aka Jho Low, story is that you could not make it up. “Every time you think it has ended, there is a new twist,” says Tom Wright, co-author of Billion Dollar Whale. Following the manoeuvres of the missing financier believed to be the brains behind the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) heist has been exhausting, especially after he and fellow Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ­correspondent Bradley Hope started focus­ing on the book last year to make it easy for readers to understand.

The incredible tale of the man who fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the world cannot be explained in a 2,000-word feature, says Wright, even to Malaysians who have been following Penang-born Jho Low, 37 next month, closely. “There were a lot of piecemeal stories and it was very hard to follow the whole narrative arc of how he did what he did, especially when we tried to write the early chapters: How did he go from a Wharton college kid to running [an investment] fund?”

In June last year, the authors got a break when emails hacked by a dissident group showed United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, had allegedly helped to lobby for loans for 1MDB. According to a WSJ report, companies connected to him received US$66 million from entities that investigators say acted as conduits for money allegedly stolen from the investment fund.

“When we got the Otaiba emails, it ­really helped because it showed Jho Low’s ­early networking and how these facilitators helped connect him to powerful Middle Eastern people. He was really a broker in the traditional sense back then. It was only later, when he had his own money, that he became this powerful figure,” says Hong Kong-based Wright, who was in Kuala Lumpur to launch Billion Dollar Whale on Sept 25.



He and Hope, who works from London, first wrote an article in 2015 about how former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had used 1MDB to fund the 2013 election. “Around that time, some people in the Malaysian government were looking to prosecute Najib for the RM681 million he had received into his account. Investigations were getting shut down. Someone in the government decided to leak information on the slush fund right when we had this front-page story about it. From then on, it was three years of painstaking research until this month.”

Instead of presenting the Jho Low story as a money trail, they based it on scenes presented chronologically in concise chapters. “You need to be able to say, this person walked into the room; the room looked like this; this is what somebody said to somebody. It all happened — none of it is fiction. That was a lot of work and quite stressful.”

Wright and Hope spoke to about 100 ­people, many in person, in London and Dubai. There were those who knew Jho Low from his childhood and his student days in the US, and others who hung around Hollywood circles and were aware of his interactions with celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, socialite Paris Hilton, musician Jamie Foxx and Australian model Miranda Kerr. Staff who worked for him on the yachts — he reportedly had hundreds of them — as well as foreign paediatricians on call when he had his two sons, ­nannies, ­maître d’s of the posh restaurants he frequented, and playmates and croupiers at Las Vegas in the US were on the pair’s whiteboard list of people to talk to.

Government officials who “wanted to get stuff out” approached the authors outside the country. “There were a lot of people who had seen him and knew what he was up to after news about him came up. Those were the people we relied on, most of them anonymously,” says Wright.

Emails were key to their research on the clandestine activities going on and they got their hands on those of PetroSaudi, which had a joint venture with 1MDB that perpetuated the financial scams, and Red Granite Pictures. The latter, co-founded by Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, is alleged to have produced big-budget films — among them The Wolf of Wall Street, starring DiCaprio — using money siphoned from 1MDB.

“Red Granite’s servers had all the emails relating to Jho Low partying with Hollywood stars and the phone numbers of playmates and that helped build up those scenes,” says Wright.

Once the story was ready, the lengthy vetting process began, both internally and by Hachette Books, publisher of Billion Dollar Whale.



The then ruling Barisan Nasional claimed WSJ was politically motivated and part of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s camp. “We never saw anybody who proffered ­evidence that this was the case. It was ­simply an attempt to confuse the matter for the ­Malaysian people,” says Wright.

These accusations fired his desire to dig even deeper, he adds. “The only thing that mattered in the reporting of this story was whether something was true or not true. The allegations against Najib by the [new Pakatan Harapan] government are very clear — money laundering and abuse of power. My book details that perhaps Najib didn’t have the full view of what was going on in what Jho Low did but that doesn’t mean he was blameless.”

On Aug 24, the Malaysian police brought charges of money laundering against Jho Low and his father, Tan Sri (Larry) Low Hock Peng, “in absentia”. The question being asked today is, where is the former?

“We had visibility of Jho Low up until mid-July — he was last living at Pacific Place Apartments in Hong Kong. From our conversations with Malaysian officials, they believe he is still in China and the Chinese government has agreed in principle to send him back at some point.

“For sure, he’s able to move freely around China. I think he knows who was involved in negotiating those infrastructure deals in Malaysia, like the East Coast Rail [Line] and the pipeline. Perhaps there are people in China who don’t want him to come back here to spill the beans on everything that’s been happening.”

Wright, who has never met the protagonist of his book, says it would be fascinating to come face to face with him. His first question would be: Why did you do this?

“When evidence started to come out — before he was charged but even after the media started reporting on him — why did he continue to take money? Most people would be filling holes from the previous schemes. But he took a Deutsche Bank loan and bought Equanimity. He has an incredible tolerance for risk. Most people would just curl up in a ball and give in. He’s very optimistic.”

Wright is amazed by Jho Low’s ability to get everyone to do his bidding. It has to do with money, he believes, citing the example of Swiss banker Jens Fred Sturzenegger, who was jailed by Singapore for money laundering and giving false information to its authorities that were investigating illicit fund transfers involving 1MDB. If you were a Swiss banker who was doing well and Jho Low came along and suddenly your salary was increased multifold, you might make no real effort to make sure compliance was doing its job, he reasons.

As for the man himself, Wright says: “I think he is someone who lacks something deep down in his heart. He seems to want to constantly have people around him. Those who know him told us he never wants to be alone. At the same time, people who partied with him felt like everything was a little bit empty. Sometimes the parties seemed like people going through the motions.

“I’m not even sure he is motivated by money. He apparently likes to go around in old clothes. It seems like he is an enigma. He is constantly striving for these huge amounts of money but not necessarily for himself. It is almost like he likes to buy things for other people and to be surrounded by people who make him feel wanted.”

A model describes him as “polite but shy and almost unable to think of what to say. He never seemed fully in the moment, often cutting short a conversation to take a call on one of his half a dozen cellphones”.

“Jho Low changed the lives of everyone he touched,” Wright writes. Once he took an Asian Canadian model to a Cartier shop on her birthday and bought her a US$60,000 watch. In 2015, he gave US$1.8 million in tips in a casino, to be shared out among the croupiers and other staff.


The most amazing thing about the Low Taek Jho, aka Jho Low, story is that you could not make it up. “Every time you think it has ended, there is a new twist.”

Writing Billion Dollar Whale from Jakarta, with Hope in the UK, has been the highlight of his career. “We work brilliantly together but it’s really a lonely endeavour. You have to be very single-minded. We became like a hive mind through doing this book.”

He remembers the mind-numbing task of wading through WhatsApp transcripts, which came in hundreds of excel spreadsheets, to “find the best bits … the diamond in the rough that would be the scene or character trait that we would put in the book”.

They also relied on investigators in different jurisdictions for help with their book. “One of the great powers of independent journalism is you are able to triangulate information from many people and tell a story.”

Wright says the outcome of the May general election has helped them, structurally, to have a better ending and, more crucially, sell the book in Malaysia. Demand has been huge: Hachette says it has never seen an American imprint with such a huge export market.

As to whether the book has contributed to the change Malaysians are seeking, he says, “I wrote it just to be entertaining, a true story grounded in what happened. I found it very interesting to see the reactions from Malaysians over the week after it came out here. One thing I wasn’t expecting was the level of anger people have been expressing on social media: ‘I couldn’t finish a chapter. I had to put it down because I was so angry.’ When you are writing a book like this, you are very neutral: These are the facts, this is how we are going to lay them out.”

Negotiations are on for a movie deal and there should be an announcement soon, Wright shares. As for writing a true-crime novel, an incredibly popular genre now, he says, “No, no,” but quickly adds, “Never say never.”


This article first appeared on Oct 8, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.


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