Why you should care
Because this iron lady is breaking the first lady mold.
Let’s start with the bags. A collection of Hermés Birkin bags, to be exact, purportedly worth at least six figures, often seen on the arm of an unapologetic Rosmah Mansor, the first lady of Malaysia. Continue to the alleged $6 million luxury shopping spree, revealed last fall in a trove of bank statements. The pièce de résistance? The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into her husband for pilfering hundreds of millions of Malaysian taxpayer dollars from a government investment fund, in a globe-spanning scandal that even reached Leonardo DiCaprio.
Flyspecking the wardrobe choices of first ladies is nothing new, but the bloggers’ obsession with “Auntie Rosy” Mansor has more in common with Imelda Marcos’ shoes than Michelle Obama’s Versace gowns. After all, the ostentation is tied to the alleged thievery of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which both have forcefully denied, and it will play some sort of role in a looming reelection campaign — whether positive or negative. For now, this bouffant-sporting, sharply accessorized political spouse stands by her man and aggressively quashes criticism. “I have bought some jewelry and dresses with my own money,” she wrote in her 2013 autobiography. “What is wrong with that?”
Rosmah, whose office did not comment, grew up in the suburbs and attended top Malaysian schools before heading to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree at Louisiana State University. After working in banking and real estate, she hitched her star to Najib in 1987 — the second marriage for both — when Najib was minister of culture, youth and sports. It was a smart bet: Najib’s father and uncle had both been prime minister, and Najib rose to the post himself in 2009. Marriage was Rosmah’s best chance at political power, as opportunities are limited for Malaysian women, with the country’s parliament now only 10 percent female.
Observers say Najib’s public equanimity can be traced to his wife. “When the time comes — and it may have done so once or twice already — that Najib just feels tempted to say, ‘Aw, shit, shucks’ and give up, go home, play golf or whatever, she just will not let him,” says Clive Kessler, Malaysia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “She is the steel in his political soul, the platinum reinforcement in his backbone, the strength of his resistance, of his refusal to capitulate, even give an inch.”
And despite the biting criticism, she does have public support. “It’s very easy to get stuck in our little bubbles through the internet — Facebook in particular — thinking she is this highly unpopular figure,” says Sonia Randhawa, director of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia. “There’s a positive Rosmah factor. She’s seen as being an aspirational figure, someone that the other women aspire to be like. She’s seen as being glamorous.”
No doubt that first ladies today wear more hats than ever. They’re expected to pick up a policy initiative that dovetails with their husbands’ agenda but doesn’t overshadow it. They’re scrutinized for their appearance but can’t go over the top. “All the double standards that apply to women apply to first ladies times 10,” says Cora Neumann, founder of the Global First Ladies’ Alliance. “It’s so easy to criticize them.” In typical first lady style, Rosmah has set up hundreds of early childhood centers throughout Malaysia, but even those efforts have been tainted by scandal. In September, shortly before Rosmah’s Permata organization was to be honored by the United Nations in New York, the award was abruptly rescinded because of the first lady’s reputation. Accepting a lifetime-achievement award for her children’s work in Kuala Lumpur in December, she used a bit of humor to deflect the criticism: “I would like to stress that whatever budget we receive from the government does not go into my handbag.”
There can be consequences for those who see Rosmah differently. “She’s seen as vindictively going after people who criticize her,” says Bridget Welsh, a political analyst in Southeast Asia and editor of The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party. “She takes everything very personally.” That’s particularly true for the media. The government has yanked licenses for multiple newspapers after tough reporting on the scandal. The famous political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, was arrested for sedition in November. Media pressure, Randhawa says, is often tied to criticism of Rosmah. As Zunar told The Hollywood Reporter in September: “In Malaysian newspapers, there are two individuals that cannot be drawn. The first is Rosmah, and the second is the Prophet Muhammad.”
The scandal stems from a debt-riddled government investment fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, founded by Najib. According to the DOJ, stolen 1MDB funds passed through, among other entities, Goldman Sachs and the production company behind DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street — which is owned by Riza Aziz, Rosmah’s son from her first marriage. For Najib, the most troublesome evidence is a $681 million deposit in his personal bank account. Najib’s camp says the money came not from 1MDB but was a gift from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Najib returned $620 million of the sum. The Saudis backed his story, but the reasoning behind the “gift” remains elusive. While the DOJ has not yet charged Najib with a crime, in July it filed a civil suit to reclaim $1 billion that had been laundered through the United States in its largest ever “kleptocracy” case, alleging that $3.5 billion had been swiped in all.
The next parliamentary elections must be held no later than mid-2018, but Najib could call one sooner to take advantage of a splintered opposition. For her part, Rosmah told local reporters in April: “My advice [to Najib] is to be very, very patient, as this is a test from Allah.” Translation: This first couple is not backing down.