Rifling through Rosmah's handbag habit

Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Philippine dictator, became synonymous with excess for her lavish spending. Now, the Malaysian PM’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, is on track to join her in infamy

Southeast Asia Globe Editorial
June 3, 2016
Rifling through Rosmah's handbag habit
Rosmah Mansor was born on 10 December 1951, in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Malaysia and a master’s in sociology and agriculture. She worked for Agriculture Bank Malaysia until 1983 and then as business development manager at Island and Peninsular, until her 1987 marriage to Najib Razak, now the prime minister. She is patron of numerous charities and a founder of children’s education organisation Permata. Portrait by Victor Blanco

Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Philippine dictator, became synonymous with excess for her lavish spending. Now, the Malaysian PM’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, is on track to join her in infamy

“A feature of portrayals of Rosmah, such as those by cartoonist Zunar, is often a prominent handbag – a reference to her alleged collection of expensive handbags,” said leading Malaysian scholar Julian C. H. Lee last month. “However, criticisms have been batted away by people including [leading politician] Tajuddin Abdul Rahman. The need for such defending suggests that there is considerable sentiment that sees such alleged possessions as inappropriate.”

Indeed, handbags and gladrags feature heavily in any cursory online search of Rosmah Mansor, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s spouse of nearly 30 years. One eye-catching article was published in April on the online news site Malaysia Chronicle with the headline “The Rosmah wannabes: what the VIP wives buy and flaunt”. Although tongue-in-cheek, the rather detailed roundup of the designer apparel favoured by Malaysia’s elite demonstrates the depth of Rosmah’s influence.

While maintaining an official public profile by attending state events, leading various charities and playing the ‘supportive wife’, Rosmah’s name has become a byword for profligate spending. Her reputation could perhaps be dismissed as unimportant in a less strained political climate, but the fact that Najib is enmeshed in a massive scandal – more than $1 billion was allegedly transferred to his personal bank accounts, much of it stemming from the embattled state wealth fund 1MDB – serves to highlight it further.

Although she works hard to maintain the image of a devoted spouse, it is one the Malaysian public is increasingly finding hard to swallow, particularly on social media. In 2010, Rosmah released a video of her singing Garth Brooks’ schmaltzy love ballad “If Tomorrow Never Comes”. The video, widely ridiculed online, shows her gliding through immaculate gardens and chichi interiors sporting her trademark capacious coiffure and accompanied by saccharine images of her family. It was quickly withdrawn, though the clip remains on YouTube.  

Last year, she was widely derided for bemoaning the price of home visits from dressmakers and hairdressers. “We have to make beautiful clothes to attend functions, but the prices are way too high. For those who can afford, it’s all right. But what about housewives like us, with no income?” she was reported as saying by online news site Malaysian Insider.

More recently, dislike of Rosmah has become more brazen. At the Malaysian Open badminton final on 10 April, where she was attending as the patron of the Badminton Association of Malaysia, some of the 10,000-strong crowd booed when it was announced she would be presenting the prizes.

But it seems that Rosmah is far from an embarrassing spousal appendage to Najib and is said to wield serious marital power. “She is very ambitious and zealous on her husband’s behalf,” said Clive Kessler, a sociology professor at the University of New South Wales. And she is not one to accept disappointments, Kessler added. “If he is ever tempted to fail… she will not let him – that is clear. And here, ‘fail’ includes stand down, back off, resign.”

That influence goes much further than just her husband’s activities. It reaches right into the dealings of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the senior party in the ruling coalition. “I’ve been told she takes an active interest in UMNO politics. Unlike the wives of previous PMs, most politicians see her as a power in her own right,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, Australia.

Her lofty ambitions appear to have deep roots, originating well before her 1987 marriage to Najib, who at the time was minister of culture, youth and sports, as well as being the eldest son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein. “Before they were married, she was on track to become a powerful presence in the corporate world,” said Kessler. Her résumé confirms this, listing stints as a business development manager at a property firm.

Meanwhile, Rosmah continues to shrug off criticism of her husband’s alleged financial impropriety, even going as far as suggesting that it is all a divine trial. “My advice [to Najib] is to be very, very patient as this is a test from Allah,” she said in April.

And even if some in the UMNO have made behind-the-scenes calls for Najib to resign, many still back him and have no problem with his wife’s high spending. “One or two bags, why not?” said UMNO supreme council member Tajuddin, also deputy agriculture and agro-based industries minister, in late March. “She’s a lady. I know women like handbags.” 

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