Malaysia’s former first lady could face prison on corruption charges

With a reputation for self-promotion, luxury, and a life of excess, Rosmah Mansor may become the ‘sacrificial lamb’ to save her husband, former Prime Minister Najib

Jarni Blakkarly
October 3, 2022
Malaysia’s former first lady could face prison on corruption charges
Rosmah Mansor (centre), the wife of the jailed former prime minister Najib Razak, arrives for the verdict in her corruption trial at the high court in Kuala Lumpur on 1 September, 2022. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor were at the absolute height of their power in August 2013. 

Just months earlier Najib had won his first general election as prime minister and now the couple were throwing open the doors of their official residence to the public for a Hari Raya Adilfitiri open house, a common occurrence in Malaysia where guests are invited in to a house to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The crowds of people dressed in fine formal wear,  lined up for hours for a chance to be briefly escorted through the couple’s house, past the gem-stone encrusted portraits of the couple which hung on the walls. 

Najib was relaxed and shook hands with the crowds with a warm smile. Rosmah stood beside him, also dressed in blue with a bracelet of pearls around her wrist. 

After a short time of shaking hands for the cameras, the couple disappeared and left the ministers to greet the crowds. Later the pair would appear on a stage at a cake cutting ceremony, chanting “One Malaysia!” and “Malaysia can!” along with the crowds. 

Just two years later, the streets of Kuala Lumpur (KL) filled with crowds of a very different nature.

Hundreds of thousands of people, dressed in the signature yellow colour of the Bersih movement for electoral reform, poured onto the streets of downtown KL. 

“Arrest Najib, arrest Rosmah!” were the rallying cries of the day. 

The scale of Najib’s corruption in the 1MDB scandal was just beginning to be made public, critics of his leadership were speaking out and to fortify his position in the top job the PM had sacked his Deputy Prime Minister and his attorney general.

Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak (centre) greets supporters as he walks out during a break in the trial during an appeal against his corruption conviction over the 1MDB financial scandal, at the federal court in Putrajaya, on 23 August, 2022. Photo: Arif Kartono/AFP

It would eventually become known that Najib directed billions of dollars to be stolen from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, much of the money, originally designated for development projects, ended up in his private bank accounts. The crowds were furious.

And Rosmah, with her carefully cultivated lavish image of luxury, was now a figure of disdain. People laughed and jeered at posters of Malaysia’s self-styled First Lady, others carried mock diamond rings and designer handbags made of cardboard. 

In the end, the lavish image Rosmah painted for herself, was her ultimate downfall, as the Malaysian people turned against her and everything she stood for.  

Seven years on from the protests, Rosmah’s fall from grace is complete. 

“Rosmah has a very bad public image, almost everyone hates her,” said Malaysian political analyst James Chin from the University of Tasmania. 

“She inserted herself in Malaysian politics in a way that the wives of previous prime ministers never did, and then there is her luxury taste and her love of high-end goods. Many people, rightly or wrongly, blame her for Najib’s corrupt actions,” he added. 

In handing down his findings, the judge in Rosmah’s case said audio recordings played as evidence made it clear that she had meddled in government affairs during Najib’s time as PM. He said she “gave instructions to Najib” on government matters including those relating to 1MDB.

She had gone from the First Lady in the prime minister’s palace in Putrajaya waving to the adoring fans, to a criminal courtroom. Rosmah stared straight ahead as the prosecution asked for a lengthy jail sentence. She reportedly muttered under her breath: “ they might as well kill me.” 

Rosmah Mansor, wife of Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak, arrives at the federal court in Putrajaya on 16 August 2022. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Rosmah’s guilty verdict and her jailing for 10 years has less to do with a solar project in Sarawak which she was found guilty of taking bribes and more to do with the seismic shift in the Malaysian political landscape.

Her husband is the first former prime minister to go to jail in the country. Najib’s legal woes began shortly after losing the 2018 election. Despite his party, UMNO, returning to government in 2020, his troubles hadn’t gone away. 

Najib’s avenues for appeal ran out and he began serving his 12-year jail sentence just weeks before the Rosmah verdict. But while Najib’s trial drew hundreds of his supporters to the court to demand his freedom, there were few in the country cheering for Rosmah. 

Even Rosmah’s own family haven’t spared her from public criticism.

Her estranged daughter from a former marriage, Azrene Ahmad, took to Instagram on the day of the verdict saying the court had made the “right decision”. 

“It is what it is, we need to respect it (the court’s decision),” she wrote. 

A post from Azrene Ahmad’s Instagram, reflecting her thoughts on the verdict of Rosmah Mansor’s trial. Screenshot: Azrene Ahmad/Instagram

“As a child I can only continue to keep them (my parents) in my prayers and hope for the best, even when I expect the worst,” Azrene said. 

Ibrahim Suffian, a programme director at the Merdeka Centre says the negative image of Rosmah was exploited by the Malaysian opposition Pakatan Harapan parties in the lead up to the 2018 election. 

“She had a reputation for self-promotion, luxury loving, it was amplified by the opposition to portray her as someone who lives a life of excess. Her spending got a lot of attention in the media and notoriety for living beyond the means of her husband’s salary,” he said. 

When Rosmah and Najib’s house was raided by police following their 2018 election loss, police confiscated millions of dollars in luxury handbags, tiaras, jewellery and shoes, much of it belonging to Rosmah. The raids only entrenched the public comparisons between her and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. 

Despite falling from power, her tastes haven’t changed. 

As one keen-eyed Twitter user pointed out, Rosmah even wore a $47,000 Cartier watch to her corruption trial. The netizen noted it’s a bold move to wear a watch that costs the price of an average house in Kedah to your trial for bribery. 

Najib has worked hard to rehabilitate his public image in the eyes of many of his supporters and return to his role as an unofficial leader of UMNO. In recent state elections in Malacca and Johor, he led the party to successful campaigns and big wins, with many speculating the former PM may have eyes on returning to the top job after the next general election in 2023. 

“Najib’s team have sought to change his public profile, while the thinking with Rosmah is to keep a low profile and separate him from her image so that the image of her doesn’t taint him” Chin said. 

While Najib still has some measure of public support, his freedom may hinge on the results of the upcoming general election, which will be held later this year or early next year. 

If UMNO wins big he could find himself freed from jail on a royal pardon from his current conviction and a new attorney general could drop the charges in the other four cases he is facing, according to Chin.  

But while Najib’s public image may have been somewhat rehabilitated, Rosmah’s hasn’t.  Chin said Najib’s public relations teams have put up a “wall” between him and Rosmah and the two haven’t been seen together at public events in years. 

Chin suggests the future for Rosmah may not be so bright, even if UMNO wields a large majority in parliament following the election. 

“I don’t think the party is inclined to save Rosmah,” he said. “They most likely will save Najib, but I think she will be the sacrificial lamb, they aren’t going to spend any political capital on her.”

While Rosmah remains free for now, until she exhausts all legal avenues of appeal, the clock is ticking. Ibrahim agrees that it is unlikely UMNO will go out on a limb to ensure Rosmah’s freedom, especially while she remains such an unpopular public figure.

“There is still a long way for her case to play out, it could be a year or more before we get to the stage of her final appeal, who knows what the political scene will look like then?”

Jarni Blakkarly is an investigative journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He has previously worked for the Malaysian-based online publication Malaysiakini and has reported on Malaysia for the BBC World Service, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera English.

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