Did fugitive financier Jho Low really earn a degree from Wharton?

studying abroad
Some knew him as a student studying in world-class institutions in the world. Many Malaysians will know him as the financier linked the biggest financial scandal in the country: 1MDB. Source: AFP

“Who is Jho Low?

Some knew him as just another kid studying abroad in some of the world’s most elite international schools and universities. 

Many now know him as a businessman with a seemingly bottomless appetite for all the showy luxuries money can buy.

“He loved gambling, especially baccarat, and he would easily, in a night, spend millions of dollars at a casino. He loved nightclubs where he would also spend a lot of money buying champagne. He loved buying gifts for people,” Bradley Hope told Knowledge at Wharton.

Hope, together with his colleague Tom Wright, are Pulitzer finalists who chronicled the rise and fall of Jho Low in their book titled, “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World,”, which details Low’s origins and lavish lifestyle.

It offers some answers to some of the biggest questions about Low — including what made him rise to the world’s top 1% before falling spectacularly into the annals of the most notorious white-collar criminals today?

studying abroad

(From left to right) Producer Swizz Beatz, recording artist Alicia Keys and Owner, EMI Music Publishing and Chairman EMI Music Publishing Asia Jho Low attending the 56th Grammy Awards at Staples Centre on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Source: AFP

What people know about Jho Low

Most famously, of course, Low’s name is tied to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund, where the financier was accused of being the mastermind behind this fraud and is wanted in several countries. 

During 2016 and 2017, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed forfeiture complaints alleging US$4.5 billion was siphoned from 1MDB between 2009 and 2014 and laundered in multiple jurisdictions, including Singapore, the US and Switzerland, according to The South China Morning Post

These have been covered extensively in countless news reports, the book “Billion-dollar Whale” and most recently, the Netflix documentary “Man On The Run.”

Still, despite plenty of information that is publicly available about Low, we can’t help but feel like we still know little about who Low Taek Jho really is.

That is, until we really look into his upbringing and time spent studying abroad.

Early life in Malaysia and time studying abroad

Low’s father, Low Hock Peng, was an executive for an investment holding company called MWE Holdings Bhd.

His grandfather, Low Meng Tak, built a substantial part of the family fortune in China and Thailand through his entrepreneurship in iron-ore mining and various liquor distilleries.

Born and raised in Penang, Low grew up rich. According to Wright and Hope, his father made millions through the sale of shares in a garment company — enough to send his children to prestigious schools with tuition fees that exceed what a regular Malaysian made in a year.

And Jho Low went to what’s arguably the most august of them all: Harrow.

This is the alma mater of many world leaders, including the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, former UK Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, and English writer Lord Byron.

Following a return to pre-pandemic grading standards last year, its students achieved the following results:

  • Over 40% of grades achieved were at grade 9 level, with over 70% of grades at either grade 9 or grade 8 level. Apart from the pandemic years, the grade 9-A* percentage is the highest on record, and the 9-A rate is the highest since 2013.
  • Likewise, at A level, almost a third of boys achieved A*s.  The A* to A and A* to B rates are the highest since 2013. Over two-thirds of grades were either A*s or As. At A Level, the results represent the strongest value-added results for the boys in a decade.

Nearly all Harrovians move on to university upon completion of their A Levels, taking up places in the world’s top institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the University of Chicago.

studying abroad

Wharton School is the world’s first collegiate school of business at the University of Pennsylvania. Source: AFP

This was when he discovered he wasn’t as rich as he once thought he was. Here, he saw his family’s wealth and status paled compared to those of these young members of the global elite.

According to Wright and Hope, this spurred Jho Low to portray that he did belong with the offsprings of the world’s richest and most powerful.

For example, would host several of his boarding school classmates in an extravagant, rented mansion in Malaysia.

He would claim it was his own.

Later, Jho Low was known to have gone to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

This is when things get bizarre. It was revealed in 2022 during a 1DMB corruption trial in Malaysia by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s defence counsel that Jho Low had dropped out of Wharton.

“All the while you knew Jho, you knew that he graduated from Wharton? Until now, you believe so?,” asked Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Razak’s defense counsel — to which former banker Joanna Yu Gin Ping replied “yes”.

In turn, Shafee revealed that the then Chairman of the Securities Commission told him Low never graduated from Wharton School.

studying abroad

Low (pictured in the centre) attending The New York Times Health For Tomorrow Conference at Mission Bay Conference Center at UCSF on May 29, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Source: AFP

A different type of intelligence?

While the rest of us leave schools and universities with knowledge, Jho Low earned something extra: network.

“The key to Jho Low’s fraud is that he’s able to network better than almost anyone else, any other fraudster in history,” Wright told VICE in a YouTube video.

“When Jho Low was studying in England at Harrow, he became friendly with a guy called Riza Aziz, who was Najib’s stepson.”

Aziz was a co-founder of Hollywood firm Red Granite Pictures, which financed films such as 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wolf of Wall Street,” using funds allegedly misappropriated from 1MDB.

He was named in a US$248-million money laundering suit in a Malaysian court, for which he struck a deal to testify against his stepfather Razak for the charges to be dropped.

studying abroad

It is believed that Low got acquinted with Riza Aziz, stepson of Najib Razak and producer of the Hollywood film “The Wolf of Wall Street” while studying abroad at Harrow boarding school. Source: AFP

In the same video, Hope explained that Low wanted to create an image around himself as a major businessman who had amassed a family fortune behind a company. 

“They created this video. It’s just like a multimillion dollar kind of promo video that really just shows how he could use all his connections to bolster his image,” Hope shares.

In the recent Netflix documentary, there were many detailed accounts of the kind of extravagant events he partook in, which include: 

  • Partying with the likes of Paris Hilton in a nightclub
  • Hiring two private jumbo jets for Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Dicaprio, Jonah Hill, and other celebrity pals to ring in the new Yyar in Sydney before flying to Las Vegas to celebrate the new year a second time in Las Vegas
  • Giving Miranda Kerr diamond pendants, earrings and other jewellery reportedlyworth about US$8 million