Sentenced to 10 years’ jail for corruption, the ex-Malaysian PM’s wife and her luxury load would be separated for a considerable while. Could this be a good ’ol cautionary tale?
All the expensive brands were found in that police raid and haul of 2018, among them Birkins and Bijans. On that fateful day, Rosmah binti Mansor was confirmed to be a handbag junkie, much to the derision of Malaysians celebrating her husband’s election defeat of that year. But in court yesterday for the sentencing of the corruption charges filed against her four years ago, she was not seen with anything resembling a handbag, not even one akin to Jacquemus’s diminutive Le Chiquito. Not a peek. Still, she appeared and conducted herself as if she was still the wife of a sitting prime minister. In fact, according to The Straits Times, she called herself a former “First Lady of Malaysia” (it was not the first) when she touted her achievements in court after the verdict was read to her. And as First Ladies do, she waved to the crowd when she left the court komplex and entered her waiting car.
She was dressed eye-catchingly in a pisang-coloured baju kurung, dotted with micro-embroidery and printed with flowers on the lower half of the sleeves, which like the neckline, was beaded with dainty bungas on the edges. This two-piece—RM500, as she once said hers cost?—would be considered locally as “Datin-style”, far removed from the revisionist spirit of Behati. She draped a similarly coloured scarf over her head, the combed-back hair, not bouffant as before, framing her bumpy dahi. An equally yellow face mask obscured her recognisable face, even from just the glabella up. She was surrounded, as before when she was “First Lady of Malaysia”, by her usual aides and members of her security detail as she entered the court building and when she left. Despite the bustle, Malaysian Netizens were able to notice that on her wrist, she wore a Cartier Ballon Bleu watch in what could be rose gold and with diamonds set on the bezel, which, according to one Instagram post, costs RM216,075 (about S$67,114). Was this, as online chatter went, not among the 401 timepieces that were seized by the police from the headline-grabbing raid on the former prime minister’s residences?
Not long after her husband Najib Abdul Razak unexpectedly lost his seat as the PM in 2018 and was suspected of misappropriating about US$4.5 billion worth of funds from the insolvent 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), police stormed the homes of the high-profile couple in the wee hours and emerged with cartons—280 of them in total (including those that looked like orange-coloured Hermès boxes for bags)—of assorted possessions that were filmed by the press. The reports that quickly emerged staggered an entire nation. Most people knew that Rosmah Mansor led a life of luxury, but not one this luxurious. The final inventory of the seizure revealed 1,400 necklaces, 567 handbags, 423 watches, 2,200 rings, 1,600 brooches and, curiously, 14 tiaras (this is not a comprehensive list), estimated then to be worth between US$223 million and US$275 million. The police were gobsmacked, calling the material haul the “biggest in Malaysian history” that required 16 days for the entire value to be determined.
Widely shared photo of Rosmah Mansor in court, revealing her expensive watch. Photo: AFP
Rosmah Mansor allowed herself access to that much stuff because she considered it “embarrassing for Malaysians when other countries tease the prime minister’s wife for being shabby”, according to her eponymous 2013 “biography”, co-written by journalists Siti Rohayah Attan and Noraini Abd Razak, and no doubt designed as a coffee table book. No one could really accuse Ms Mansor’s attire as ever worn or slovenly. In the book, she repeatedly described how, as a teenager, she was constantly fashionable when going out with her clique, the “Giddy gang”. Even as a young woman working in the former Bank Pertanian (now the Islamic bank Agrobank), she was seen as “a fashion-conscious career woman”, as described in past profiles of her. When she became the wife of the PM, she found it additionally imperative to look better, and saw no wrong in her shopping—however lavish—and desire to appear stylish. But as a very public figure who was supposed to serve the rakyat (if not, keep a low profile), her spending aroused criticisms, even scorn. In the book, she was defiant: “I have bought some jewellery and dresses with my own money. What is wrong with that?”
Sure, that may be acceptable, but status and the constant reminder of her own were all part of what was important to her too and what many find irksome. She did not just buy any jewellery, any dress—they were those that augmented her position: She sought out the truly exorbitant. If that was insufficient, she often reminded her audience that she was the “wife of the prime minister”. She was especially partial to the title “First Lady of Malaysia”. She used it at home (there was, according to CNA, even a “First Lady of Malaysia unit”, set up in the PM’s department, to deal with her affairs) and abroad, often sending aides ahead of her visits to stores to announce the impending arrival of the “First Lady of Malaysia”. It is not hard to see how easily impressed people were (if they were not put off)—not many, especially foreigners, know Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and does not have a president as head of state. Her bajus and trappings conferred her the status of a consort of sort and afforded her the image of eminence and prominence she wished to project. “As a woman and as the wife of a leader, I have to look presentable, neat, and take care of my appearance,” she declared in her biografi. But how she looked (even now) had not always been flatteringly described or shared.
There has been much speculation about her going under the knife (which she, predictably, denied), to the extent that Singaporean cosmetic doctor Siew Tuck Wah saw it necessary to post about it. In 2018, shortly after the power couple’s properties were raided, Dr Siew shared on his blog page of the same name, a rather long entry, titled “What Bad Plastic Surgery Caused Rosmah Mansor’s Distorted Face?” He did not mince his words, writing that she “has long been the poster girl of bad plastic surgery procedures amongst practicing doctors,” even calling her visage “the scary gargoyle we are familiar with”, before listing five “possibilities” that could have caused what he thought were botched jobs. This analysis came just a week after Ms Mansor’s estranged daughter (from the former’s first marriage) Azrene Ahmad posted on Facebook a lengthy and damning entry that painted a deeply unflattering picture of her mother (and, to a slightly lesser extent, her stepfather). From it, we learned that among “shamans and witch doctors, aesthetic doctors and the like” came to their home, affirming the open-secret suspicions that Ms Mansor had procedures done in her house. Dr Siew concluded in his post: “Rosmah’s face proves one thing—money cannot buy you good taste.”
The 2013 biography of Rosmah Mansor. Photo: Jalil Samad
Rosmah Mansor did not grow up incredibly rich, nor terribly poor. Her parents were school teachers in Kuala Pilah, a small valley town in the south of the state of Negri Sembilan, where she was born, in 1951. She went to the local school Kolej Tunku Kurshiah, an all-girls boarding school often described as “premier“. Although her own telling of her childhood could have been romanticised, she was rather forthright about her strict father, describing how he disciplined her when the young fashionista once daringly refused to get out of a dress he did not approve of: He flogged her with “a rubber hose”. Her mother did not come to the daughter’s consolation as she did not, according to Ms Mansor, dare to defy her husband. When things calmed, her mother told her, “I cannot take your side. If your father said you were in the wrong, I too have to say you were in the wrong. When you are bigger, you will value this.”
Grown-up and married Rosmah Mansor appeared to understand her mother’s explanation, if not to value it. In her book, she believes that “when the husband scolds the children, the wife should not defend the children… because the children will feel there is someone else to defend them and do more wrongs”. But, as it appeared, in her married life, she took only her own side. Her daughter Azrene Ahmad wrote on FB in 2018, “As I grew older, I saw the selfishness and greed of one above all else. I experienced firsthand emotional, physical and mental abuse at the hands of the one on the left. I witnessed firsthand the same abuse she caused onto the one on the right.” The photo that accompanied the post showed Rosmah Mansor and her husband: she was on the left. That she was the dominant partner in the relationship was also recently asserted in the high court’s 116-page judgment in which an audio recording that purportedly revealed a conversation between her and her husband was shared: “It is clear from the recording that the accused gave instructions to Najib on government affairs”, the judge was reported to have said. “She has control over him”, which is rather different from how her mother abided by her father.
Ms Mansor has other talents. In her biography, she described herself as a “naturally gifted accountant” (although she has a degree in anthropology and sociology and a Masters of Science in sociology and agriculture), which may explain her flair for managing money and spending it. In one Wall Street Journal report in 2016, the paper claimed that Ms Mansor racked up credit card bills of US$6 million between 2008 and 2015 on clothes, shoes, and jewellery “despite having no known source of income beyond her husband’s salary,” it wrote. “She is the only child of school teachers, hasn’t had a regular paying job in years and her husband, prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, is a longtime bureaucrat with an annual salary of US$100,000.”
Usually, she denies such profligate spending. In a trip to Sydney in 2012, she reportedly spent A$100,000 at the boutique of South African-born designer Carl Kapp (on hand to serve his rich customer, he was introduced to her as—you probably guessed it—“the First Lady of Malaysia”). When the news spread homewards of the extravagant purchases, the then PM and his wife refuted the allegations as “a wildly exaggerated story deliberately fabricated to affect people’s perception of their leaders”. The shopper herself was adamant, telling the press, “It’s all rubbish, wildly exaggerated, and not true” (in one live, by-election appearance in 2011, she told the audience, “Adakah muka ini muka penipu? Tak ada lah! [Do I look like a liar? I don’t!]). Even the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was summoned to investigate the Sydney scandal. It is not clear what came out of that. The Associated Press reported that, in court, the judge was told that Ms Mansor had spent RM100,000 per month to hire spin doctors to avert criticisms of how lavishly she led her life.
A young Rosmah Mansor. Photo: My News Bistro
She had a kreatif side too. Before her shopping habits became public scrutiny, Ms Mansor was a recording artiste. She claimed in her book that she had cut an album—title unknown—and made “millions” out of it. Strangely, the Malaysian public knew almost nothing of the recording (possibly made in 2005/2006, when a compilation album Lagenda Cinta [Legends of Love], in which a track attributed to her, was released). Some reports claimed that the album was “bought by government ministers who were big fans of her singing talent.” In 2005, she sang a song Lara Jiwa (Sorrowful Souls) in a duet with a much younger, talent show winner of Akademi Fantasia 3, Asmawi Ani, to support the work of Kedah Natural Disaster Relief Association. Ms Mansor’s pop aspirations brings to mind Thailand’s Princess Ubolratana, who also loves to sing and had similarly performed with contestants of singing competitions. However, unlike the Princess, whose zeal for expressing herself in song remains effusive, Ms Mansor has retired her microphone.
But, not her audibility. When her sentence was read in court yesterday, Ms Mansor was said to have cried. Given the guilty of graft verdict (and the vehement denials prior), it is hard to imagine that anyone in Malaysia not part of her family and inner circle would express sympathy. Her tears are perhaps understandable when her husband was sentenced just days earlier to 12 years’ jail. CNA’s Kuala Lumpur correspondent Melissa Goh reported that the seventy-year-old “was in tears… choking”, but “one moment she’s in tears, seated in the dock, next, she turned around and smiled to her daughter (likely hers and Mr Razak’s—Nooryana Najwa)… it’s simply baffling.” Could her grief be that brief? But the rise of Ms Mansor, too, has, for the most part, tricky to understand. Given her dubious record with handling money, it is odd that she could be trusted with the government contract for which she was charged with accepting bribes—when her husband was still in power. She said in court: “Never ever have I thought I want to squander money (or buang duit, an act she had frequently said she was incapable of). Never ever have I ever touched a single sen (cent)!” Chronic self deception, in the end, leads to her truth, and only hers.
Reuters helped paint a more vivid picture of her in the well-attended courtroom: “I must admit that I’m very sad with what happened today,” she told the judge—tearfully again—after hearing the verdict. And she insisted rather laughably “nobody saw me taking the money, nobody saw me counting the money…. but if that’s the conclusion, I leave it to God.” Apart from the 10-year jail term for each of the three charges (which would be served concurrently, she still has other charges pending, including 17 for money laundering and tax evasion), Rosmah Mansor was given an impressive fine of RM970 million (about S$303 million), a figure believed to be “the largest in Malaysian legal history”. Her lawyer Jagjit Singh told the press that she has no means to pay. “Who can afford the fine of almost RM1 billion? You tell me, who can afford that money?” He added, perhaps to confirm the WSJ editorial of 2016, “my client doesn‘t have any source of income. Is this what we call justice?” A fine—even a lot lighter—is, of course, no Birkin.
Illustration (top): Just So