What’s in the pipeline for the author of a tell-all book that brought down a government? We bring you the scoop
Writing Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, And The World — together with Bradley Hope — has been the highlight of Tom Wright’s journalistic career. It has also won the admiration and envy of many journalists, this writer included.
The book exposes Low Taek Jho — better known as Jho Low — as the alleged key figure involved in siphoning money from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). It also details how the Penang-born financier had spent his ill-gotten gains by partying excessively with Hollywood celebrities like Leonardo DiCarpio, Jamie Foxx and Paris Hilton.
Wright and Hope, who are Gerald Loeb Award winners and Pulitzer Prize finalists, were previously journalists for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). They first broke the story in 2015, detailing how stolen 1MDB money had ended up in the personal bank accounts of the then Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak.
About US$700 million ($929 million) was deposited through a complex web of transactions. Najib is currently under trial in the Malaysian court. Low, who is wanted by authorities in Malaysia, Singapore and the US, remains on the run.
Three years after publishing Billion Dollar Whale in 2018, Wright and Hope are hoping to leverage their investigative journalism credentials for their next challenge: A content company called Project Brazen.
The Singapore incorporated company describes itself as a “new kind of journalism studio”, according to its website. Project Brazen aims to “dig deep to uncover the uncomfortable truth” and deliver “thrilling stories” via podcasts and books. The company will produce “investigative content” that will be exclusive, says Wright in an interview with The Edge Singapore, after speaking at the inaugural XCL Dialogues held at GEMS World Academy on April 15.
“So, by that, you’re not going to get them anywhere else. We’re not going to do, for example, stories about the Thai cave rescue when you’ve got like three other people doing it. Because that’s not good business,” he says. Project Brazen will also focus on investigative content that is global in nature and not specific to only one country, he adds.
Project Brazen also intends to monetise and adapt its investigative content into documentaries, television shows and films. For instance, Billion Dollar Whale will now be turned into a TV show, instead of a film as previously reported. It will be produced by the makers of Crazy Rich Asians, who are a Singapore company, says Wright. Project Brazen will also be involved in the production.
“The market for this is huge at the moment, because there’s so many different competing streaming services, and they’re all looking for narrative nonfiction content. And we just think we have a brand [that is about] truth [and] exciting, global stories,” he says.
Project Brazen is now a two-man team but after raising funds, Wright says that it also intends to become a platform for “many other kinds of storytellers”. Wright, who is currently based in Singapore, says that he is now producing a series of podcasts which have yet to air while Hope, who is based in London, is currently working on a book contract, he says. However, Wright declined to give more details on both projects.
So, how will Project Brazen balance the ideals of investigative journalism and its commercial pursuits? Would not the profit seeking motivation compromise the quality of its content?
“I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. Project Brazen will continue to uphold the same high standards as we have always exhibited when we worked for WSJ. We’re not going to create content that’s untrue or lazy just because we’re not working for WSJ anymore,” says Wright. “It’s not as if WSJ doesn’t have a profit motive. So, we need to be financially sustainable. We’re going to do stories that we think are important and really gripping”.
All about luck
Investigative journalism is never easy. But the bug never goes away and Wright says he is working on “slightly more manageable projects” now, though they have “some similarities” to Billion Dollar Whale.
Still, Project Brazen will likely involve painstaking hard work, if tracing the 1MDB money trail is any indication. Both Wright and Hope had to scrutinise many documents and trawl through thousands of Low’s Blackberry messages to connect the dots. Inevitably, doing so had included poring through plenty of unnecessary information.
“You know, there was like message after message about [which] place to go for lunch. You have to read all of this nonsense just to get to the part, which helps you find the corruption or tell the story. Doing that was extremely exhausting,” says Wright.
As much as unravelling the 1MDB scandal took a lot of effort, it was also one of “luck”, concedes Wright.
When he and Hope first caught wind of the troubles brewing at 1MDB, The Edge Malaysia and Sarawak Report were already on to the story. The Malaysian business and investment weekly paper and the blog headed by British investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown had been reporting extensively on discrepancies occurring at the sovereign wealth fund.
Finding a fresh angle was a challenge. Nevertheless, the pair realised how huge the scandal was and knew they could not afford to dismiss covering it. They proceeded to write an article based on publicly available information, which appeared on the front page of the WSJ.
This unexpectedly led to their big break as a Malaysian government insider decided to leak information on Najib’s personal bank accounts to them after having read the WSJ article. “It fell into our lap because of [the article],” Wright says during the dialogue session.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In the meantime, is Wright still following 1MDB closely? He says he is keeping abreast of the recent developments, though he admits that things have got “a bit slower” now. Wright has also heard of rumours that the Malaysian government is trying to reach a deal with the United Arab Emirates to repatriate some of the stolen 1MDB money but nothing is confirmed yet.
What about the elusive Low, who is now reportedly hiding out in either China or the Middle East?
Wright says he last heard that Low was in China, based on information he received in 2019. Although Low may have moved elsewhere to evade capture, Wright believes the fugitive financier is still there. He also believes Low has somehow proven to be a “useful pawn” to China, enabling him to seek refuge there.
Wright also suggests that China could be harbouring Low to prevent the latter from revealing dirty state secrets related to the country’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Low was allegedly involved in getting Chinese contractors to build the grossly inflated East Coast Rail Link project in Malaysia. The deal was allegedly a means to plug holes from the 1MDB theft. “[It] would be embarrassing to the Chinese government [if Low spilled the beans],” he adds.
China may also be keeping Low for leverage given its tussle with the US. Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who had fled to the US in 2014, is wanted by China for alleged corruption. In keeping Low, Wright suggests that China has the option to make an exchange for Guo. Nevertheless, he believes the US does not want Low as badly as Malaysia does.
Now that the Malaysian government is led by a new coalition of parties, does it still have the political will to pursue Low? Under the previous Pakatan Harapan government, Malaysia had its sights on recapturing Low.
However, in February last year, the government was toppled following the resignation of then Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
With the emergence of the new Perikatan Nasional government under Muhyiddin Yassin, the determination to arrest the fugitive is uncertain. Muhyiddin was formerly part of the Pakatan Harapan government and an associate of Najib under the Barisan Nasional government, which lost power following the 2018 general elections.
“It’s difficult for Malaysia because what can you do? China has never admitted that he’s there. I don’t even know if Malaysia has an extradition treaty with China or not,” says Wright. “They have to balance that and their relationship with China [as a substantial trade partner]”.
If there is one thing that Wright hates about Low, is that he is a liar. “He lies about everything, including sending legal letters to bookshops, telling them that they’re going to get sued if they carry a Billion Dollar Whale,” he says.
But one thing about Low that amazes Wright is his ability to cosy up to the rich and powerful.
“He’s an unbelievable networker. First of all, he networks with Najib and steals [the 1MDB] money. Then he networks with powerful Middle Eastern families — former Prime Minister of Kuwait and his family, for example,” Wright says.
“And then he goes on the run in China, and he networks with very powerful Chinese officials. So, he has this ability to figure out who’s powerful and how they can help protect him. Not everyone could do it. It’s just kind of phenomenal,” he adds.