Billion Dollar Whale — Book Review

Fitzgerald Afful
Scrolls and Quills
Published in
3 min readFeb 17, 2019

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Penang — Jho Low’s Birthplace. Picture by Marcus Lim

Bernie Madoff. Charles Ponzi. Michael Milken. NAM1 (Ghanaians will recognize this one). By now you get the point I’m driving at. Jho Low should be and is on this list.

Billion Dollar Whale is a real life riveting story by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope of Jho Low, a young Malaysian graduate of Wharton School who manages to get control of billions of dollars by manipulating his relationships with his old and rich school contacts and Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Billion Dollar Whale Cover

Jho Low is painted as an enigmatic social climber who seeks validation in the elite community and wants to be at the center of the powerful world through greed.

“Some of the models whom Low regaled with Cartier jewelry or gambling chips were astonished he never hit on them. Far more than sex, it seemed, he craved recognition, whether from women or Hollywood stars, and he sought to create spectacles that reinforced his power and prestige.”

His and arguably the world’s biggest heist came in the form of the 1MDB — 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund he helped build (by studying sovereign wealth funds in the middle east) when Najib Razak gained the post of Malaysian Prime Minister in 2009.

Somehow, Low never received an official position and only admits that he occasionally “consulted” with 1MDB, and was involved in a number of transactions connecting his own interests with those of 1MDB.

At this point, a little spoiler wont do no harm. You’ve watched Wolf of Wall Street. I know you have. Now let me put it in a little perspective. The conman you learn about in this book literally funds the production and release of the movie (Wolf of Wall Street) about a conman, Jordan Belforte. The frigging irony.

Leo Di Caprio with Jho Low. Credit: Getty Images

Everyone can be bought. Or at the very least, everyone is looking for easy money. You learn this too. And that is how Jho Low gets all those big names you can think of involved and manipulated. Goldman Sachs. Di Caprio. Jamie Foxx. Swizz Beatz. Alicia Keys. Busta Rhymes. Kanye West. Paris Hilton. Kate Upton. Nicole Scherzinger. Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (You are probably familiar with this name if you are an English Premier League fan).

“As the night of gambling at the Palazzo wound up at sunrise, Low handed the casino staff a tip of $1 million, one of the largest ever at the establishment.”

At points, I tell myself “This is outrageous”. The amount of money being spent casually at the expense of the regular Malaysian citizen is mind-blowing. The billions stolen was spent on movie posters, diamond rings and necklaces and parties. I imagine the anger this book would build up in you if you were Malaysian.

Renowned journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope detail very well the origins of each character before slotting them gently to fit into the story such that the reader understands perfectly the part they play.. They do same with the locations.

Comparing to Carreyrou’s Bad Blood (which I recommend), Jho Low is not as interesting a figure but somehow he swindles many more people and gets away with much more money than Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.

Occasionally the writing gets too engrossed in the details and it gets hard to follow the important lines and characters. I expected it to end like in Bad Blood too, but the authors casually remind you that “There will always be survivors.” in white collar crime.

Billion Dollar Whale comes to an end on a nice note but in reality, the story of Jho Low is not ended yet.

Best Parts: Very detailed themes and settings.

Worst Parts: Too many characters to track (if that’s a bad thing).

Favorite Quote: “There will always be survivors” — Chapter 51

Rating: 4.0 / 5 stars

Would recommend.

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Fitzgerald Afful
Scrolls and Quills

Book reviews, flash fiction and random rants about iOS Eng. Portfolio: fitzafful.github.io