How Former Malaysian PM Najib’s 1MDB Scandal Fell Apart

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Billion Dollar Whale" by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s 1MDB scandal fall apart? What did he do once the scandal was exposed?

Billion Dollar Whale describes the shocking story of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal and how it all fell apart. Authors Tom Wright and Bradley Hope unravel the exploits of Jho Low and his relationship with Najib as they stole from Malaysia’s sovereign funds.

Read on to learn how Najib’s 1MDB scandal fall apart, according to Wright and Hope.

Former Malaysian PM Najib’s 1MDB Scandal

Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope details the exploits of Jho Low, a Malaysian financier who allegedly stole billions of dollars from Malaysian sovereign funds. In order to leverage these heists, Low courted figureheads from international banks and governments by branding himself as a successful, powerful businessman. In particular, Low used his father’s connections to get in touch with the family of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, which ultimately led to Low and Najib’s misuse of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth funds. While the scandal was ultimately exposed in 2015, and many of his associates were prosecuted, Low remains at large. Here, we’ll explain Najib’s 1MDB-linked corruption and how the whole scheme unraveled, according to Wright and Hope.

The 1MDB Scheme Unraveled as Authorities Closed In

As Wright and Hope note, in spite of Low’s best efforts, journalists began to investigate both Low’s debauchery and 1MDB’s dealings, with some stories beginning to link the two, albeit without strong evidence. Notably, The New York Times published a front-page story on Low, linking him to Najib. None of the media coverage of Low was able to conclusively implicate him in any wrongdoing until Justo, a disgruntled former PetroSaudi employee, contacted blogger and journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown. Using Justo’s evidence, Rewcastle-Brown published a story in 2015 detailing 1MDB’s fraudulent deals. As Wright and Hope describe, the story exposed the scandal and kicked off a wave of international investigations.

As a result of the information Justo leaked, world governments began prosecuting Low and his associates. Low’s co-conspirators at Goldman Sachs and in Abu Dhabi were now facing hefty fines and in some cases jail time.

Najib Used Extreme Measures to Silence Dissent

Wright and Hope note that while foreign governments were able to prosecute individuals and institutions within their jurisdictions, at home in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib took extreme measures to protect himself and his allies, including Low. According to the authors, Najib’s regime imprisoned Xavier Justo, a whistleblower and former PetroSaudi employee, and publicly attempted to discredit him. With Justo silenced, Najib made sure to keep stories about 1MDB and Low out of state-controlled media. He threatened journalists and political opponents with violence. During this period, a Malaysian anti-corruption prosecutor is alleged to have been murdered by Najib’s regime.

(Shortform note: While Justo spent almost two years in prison, he was eventually pardoned, and he recently released a book detailing his experience as an imprisoned whistleblower. According to Justo, in prison, he faced inhumane treatment, while his wife was simultaneously threatened and harassed. On his release, he reportedly struggled to find work in the banking industry, as many employers saw hiring a prominent whistleblower as a liability.)

However, despite his dictatorial actions and attempts to hide stories about 1MDB and Low, Najib could not hold on to power forever. Eventually, Wright and Hope write, Najib lost a reelection bid in 2018 and was subsequently prosecuted and sentenced by the opposition government.

(Shortform note: While he was sentenced in 2020, Najib only began to serve his 12-year sentence in 2022, when the Malaysian court system rejected his final appeal. In addition to jail time for his involvement with the 1MDB scheme, Najib was also ordered to pay almost $50 million in fines.)

Low Evaded Capture by Hiding Out in Countries That Refused to Pursue Him

While Najib was unable to escape punishment for his involvement with the 1MDB scheme, Low is still at large. According to Wright and Hope, authorities in Malaysia and the United States seized any of Low’s assets that they could access, but Low escaped with plenty of money still discreetly squirreled away.

(Shortform note: While Low and his associates stole billions from the Malaysian state, at least some of that money eventually made its way back after being seized by international governments. The United States has reportedly repatriated over one billion dollars in seized assets to the Malaysian government.)

While his associates faced fines and prosecution, Low himself managed to evade capture, slipping away into countries where he knew he wouldn’t be extradited. Low kept a low profile, being only occasionally sighted in Bangkok and Shanghai. As Wright and Hope note, Low’s money still protected him in China, where the government was happy to shelter him, believing that his influence in Malaysia could eventually prove useful.

(Shortform note: While Low has evaded capture and is presumed to be under the protection of Chinese intelligence as of early 2023, some authors believe that Low may soon face justice. According to these authors, Low has become less valuable to the Chinese government and may one day soon be extradited to Malaysia.)

How Former Malaysian PM Najib’s 1MDB Scandal Fell Apart

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Tom Wright and Bradley Hope's "Billion Dollar Whale" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Billion Dollar Whale summary:

  • A chronicle of the rise and fall of Malaysian entrepreneur, Jho Low
  • The tactics Low used to succeed as a con man
  • The political and financial context for Low's scheme

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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