How Did the 3 Books On 1MDB Stack Up Against Each Other? We Tell You

Our take on the three definitive books on the biggest scandal in Malaysia. 
Wednesday 12 December 2018
The definitive guides to the 1MDB scandal. Photo: iStock

Thank heavens for fake news. Blessed be the leaks. Do I have your attention? We have leaks from a variety of sources to thank for three recently published books on the 1MDB scandal. Without them, The Sarawak Report, Billion Dollar Whale, and 1MDB – The Scandal that Brought Down a Government, could not have been written.

‘Fake news’ assumed a role by having created an almost febrile atmosphere within the worldwide media that has imposed a rigour on the conscientious. The works of Clare Rewcastle Brown, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, and P. Gunasegaram with KINIBIZ, are nothing if not conscientiously researched.

The Sarawak Report

The Sarawak Report is a triumph, in my opinion, for the blogosphere and for ‘citizen journalism’ – despite the fact that it was written by a bona fide journalist with an extensive portfolio. What began as a web portal blog by Clare Rewcastle Brown exposing the deforestation in Sarawak and the individuals who were lining their own pockets in the process of granting and receiving concessions, is now a 500+ page tome of outstanding investigative journalism.

It charts an incredible journey, fuelled by a sense of injustice that led to the prising open of the can of worms that ultimately had ‘1MDB’ printed on the label. It’s fair to say that neither of the other two books could have been written without the indefatigable efforts of Brown, who combined pit bull tenacity and surgical precision in putting together pieces of the jigsaw that revealed the overall picture that the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, described as the “largest kleptocracy case” in US history.

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Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is escorted by police to the courthouse in October relating to corruption charges. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

The extent to which Brown’s investigations and occasional ‘publish and be damned’ philosophy impacted Malaysia’s most recent general election cannot be overemphasised. It helped to bring down a government by calling to the electorate’s attention a quite stunning level of incompetence, at best, and malfeasance, at worst, that included the misappropriation of state investment funds supposedly earmarked for the development of a nation.

The Sarawak Report is tough to read. Not because it’s badly written – quite the opposite in fact – but because the subject matter is often hard to stomach, and the behaviour of certain individuals so morally reprehensible as to beggar belief and turn a bitter taste in the mouth into something even more invidious.

Detailing more than nine years of blatant skulduggery that led to the already well-documented missing billions of dollars from 1MDB, the book is almost Homeric in scope. While Odysseus took 10 years to make his way from Troy to Ithaca, Brown spent a similar amount of time on her journey from the jungles of Sarawak to playing a major part in the defenestration of a sitting sovereign government. Interestingly, at the outset, she could not possibly have known her journey’s ultimate destination, and the trek may not even be finished just yet. From a legal perspective, it has only just begun.

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Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak poses with Barisan Nasional supporters during a campaign event ahead of the 14th general elections in May 2018. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

As matters came to her attention, by hook and by crook, Brown peeled back the layers of an onion in the stages of decomposition based on her findings and the information she received. It became clear to her that there was something rotten on the outside and even more putrid at the core of what should have been a sound mechanism, and she approached the task of exposing that rottenness with the occasional recklessness that characterises a journalist who knows what a massive scoop can do for a career.

With every newly-cited shell company and associated bank account, The Sarawak Report takes the reader deeper into the murky depths of the global financial system’s dark web of secrecy and misdirection that helped facilitate the sorry debacle. Despite innumerable opportunities to emote, what’s admirable about Brown’s authorial voice is the lack of judgmentalism. It’s not difficult to read between the lines and empathise with the horror and disgust she must have been feeling as each example of grand theft and attendant greed is revealed, but the deadpan presentation and the reporting of facts make the whole saga more compelling as a read.

One doesn’t need to be told what to think. Tapping into the reader’s moral perspective is a much more interesting approach, and in avoiding mention (mostly) of the extravagant spending of the alleged ‘mastermind’ of the piece, Jho Low, Brown makes a conscious choice not to engage our prurient interests and the modern-day penchant
for sensationalism.

Brown seems intent on trying to assume the image of a hardened gumshoe with tunnel vision on an important case, but her empathy and humanity can’t help peeking over the parapet to reveal a person who cares deeply about causes. The Sarawak Report retains a momentum throughout that makes it an unlikely ‘page turner’. It is weighty, tragic and an example of investigative journalism at its best, but I doubt it will sell as well as Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s Billion Dollar Whale, which is easier to read and harder to put down – suffused as it is with tales of the wanton excesses that pique our lascivious, maybe even voyeuristic interests.

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The figure at the centre of it all – Jho Low. Photo: Michael Ioccissano/AFP

Billion Dollar Whale

As the title would suggest, Jho Low is the character that drives the narrative, and it’s to the writers’ credit – they are both reputable Wall Street Journal contributors – that the sensationalism is just about kept under control. Wright and Hope have proven in the past that they have an eye for a story, but even they couldn’t have believed their luck when they started to unearth the machinations involving 1MDB. They do, however, get somewhat caught up in wanting to produce a publication that represents the best practices and rigour of investigative journalism, but also trying to evolve a pot-boiling, page-turning bestseller with film rights in mind.

The authorial voice therefore, is occasionally a little uncomfortably self-conscious, and I suspect that the writers were encouraged to humanise proceedings with, for example, identikit representations of key characters – never anything more than build and hair colour – designed to personalise and augment the narrative.

Bite-sized chapters and playful titles make Billion Dollar Whale what it was intended to be – a cracking read with an almost Dickensian episodic approach – and as with Brown’s book, there is no need for authorial judgment or didacticism. The facts speak for themselves, and while the figures are mind-boggling and the sheer effrontery of protagonists difficult to countenance, the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ mantra kicks in throughout, and hardly needs any enhancement.

1MDB – The Scandal that Brought Down a Government

Less successful, unfortunately, than Brown’s and the Wright/Hope effort is 1MDB – The Scandal that Brought Down a Government by P. Gunasegaram and KINIBIZ. Despite pulling no punches and asking more pertinent, upfront questions – it’s more direct than the others – it reeks of being too hastily put together.

The second half of the book is a replication of articles posted on the now defunct KINIBIZ web portal, while the first charts the progress of the 1MDB scandal from inception in 2009 to the fall of the incumbent government of Malaysia in May this year.

The problem is that the early part of the book, in particular, has factual inaccuracies – on page 4 of the ‘Introduction’, for heaven’s sake, we have “Low…went to school with Rosmah’s stepson, Riza Aziz…” – while grammatical errors (sentence construction, use of tenses, etc.) are legion. It puts an unnecessary strain on the credibility of a book that is otherwise meticulously researched and exudes a gratifying sense of moral outrage.

READ: The ‘Lone Gunman’ Behind the Investigation into 1MDB

What is good about P. Gunasegaram’s book are the timelines and encapsulations that make it easy for 1MDB watchers to keep abreast of the developments at certain junctures, and appreciate the actual scale of the heist. This is a book about the nuts and bolts of the fiasco and requires a degree of familiarity and expertise in economics and the workings of modern financial instruments.

1MDB is laudable, and at its best, incisive and revelatory. Moreover, it asks the questions that The Sarawak Report and Billion Dollar Whale decided, deliberately and with good reason, not to ask. Such is the tone of righteous indignation, emanating very probably from writers whose very own country has been fleeced and ridiculed by the corrupt and the amoral. Readers, no doubt will have a few questions of their own. I know I do.

One of which would obviously be: how the hell did all of this happen? How did billions of dollars of supposedly public money end up in the accounts of individuals whose sole aim was to feather their own nests and buy themselves membership to the ‘elite’ that comprised of Hollywood A-listers, recording artists, and the self-designated crème de la crème of senior investment bankers in the world’s most august financial institutions?

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How did the perpetrators imagine that the conspicuous spending of their ill-gotten gains – real estate in the US, multi million-dollar birthday bashes, artworks, private jets, obscenely expensive jewellery and yachts – would escape the attention of the authorities and the general public? And here we get to the crux of the matter. The protagonists in the 1MDB debacle never thought that they were going to be caught. Such was their hubris. Such was their belief that anyone entering the labyrinth they thought they had created would never emerge. Thankfully, they were wrong. All of them.

The story detailed in the books of Brown, Gunasegaram, Wright and Hope is far from over. Together they have produced a vital omnium gatherum (discounting the miscellany) of what should be a startling and unsettling saga. Except that it isn’t. The lack of responsibility and the sheer, unbridled greed that caused the 2008 global financial crisis should have been a salutary lesson to us all, and should have put in place the kind of systems that would have prevented anything of its ilk happening again.

While 1MDB may not be on quite the same scale, the same failings have been in place – the simple lack of proper oversight, and not enough people asking relevant questions at relevant times. The answers to such questions, unfortunately, could only have been provided by those who stood to gain and who thought they were untouchable.

Justice may prevail in due course, in which case the work of Brown in particular will have played a major part, but it might take more years than the sorry debacle was in the making, and proper restitution may even prove to be token in light of the damage that has already been done to a nation. To quote Edmund Burke, “All that
is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing.” This is an appropriate moment to extend thanks to Clare Rewcastle Brown, Tom Wright, Bradley Hope and P. Gunasegaram for doing something.

Related: Everything We Learned About 1MDB From Sarawak Report’s Clare Rewcastle Brown