The 19th century French writer Honoré de Balzac said that the secret of a great success is a crime that has never been found out because it was properly executed. The crime of Jho Low, the shadowy figure behind Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund, was well-executed. But it was found out, only because it was just too big – including the most lavish networking ever done.

The 1MDB fund scandal

The story of Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund is one of leveraging stolen wealth in order to pursue preposterously expensive networking at the highest level.

I was trying to find a way to characterize my attitude toward this, when I stumbled on an interview in The New York Review of Books with a Bangladeshi-born British writer named Zia Haider Rahman. In it, Rahman says, “I have misgivings about transacting in social capital.”

I have the same misgivings, almost pathologically so. If I feel that a contact I could make, or a contact I have made, might serve to help me to transact in social capital, I will shy away from that contact. For me, the most depressing words in the English language are, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” – because I refuse to believe them, yet I know they are often true.

The central character in the 1MDB story, a Malaysian Chinese named Jho Low, had exactly the opposite pathology. For him, who you know – and whom who you know knows – is the ultimate pursuit, justifying any effort, any expense.

Imagine, then, my schadenfreude as I read Billion Dollar Whale, a book about the 1MDB scandal by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, as Low’s mountain of extravagantly accumulated social capital crumbled.

The man behind the scenes pulling the strings

Low’s networking, and his habit of implying he was connected to enormous wealth, began with his family. His father, a successful businessman, sent Low for his last two years of high school to Harrow, the exclusive English boarding school, where he could rub elbows with children of wealth such as members of the royal families of Brunei and Kuwait.

In London, Low got to know Riza Aziz, the stepson of Malaysia’s then-defense minister Najib Razak, and the son of Najib’s high-spending wife Rosmah. Through Aziz, Low became close to his mother Rosmah, and to Najib, who later became Malaysia’s prime minister.