‘I Am a Victim’ Cries Ex-First Lady, Famous for Luxury Bags, as She’s Convicted of Corruption

When police raided Rosmah Mansor's house, they found several hundred boxes of Birkin bags worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
rosmah mansor han
Rosmah Mansor was found guilty of graft on September 1, just over a week after her husband began serving a 12-year jail term. Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Once famed for her extensive collection of luxury bags and lavish lifestyle, the former first lady of Malaysia’s fall from grace was confirmed on Thursday, as she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bribery.

This conviction came just over a week after her husband, former prime minister Najib Razak, was sent to jail for his role in one of the largest corruption scandals in history.

Wearing a traditional Malay long blouse and skirt, with a headscarf and face mask in matching yellow tones, 70-year-old Rosmah Mansor was brought to tears by the verdict. Found guilty on three counts of soliciting and receiving bribes, her 10-year prison sentence also comes with a record fine of $216 million. 

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“I appeal to you to have some compassion, be human about it. I am a victim,” she said, adding that she was now “taking over a man’s role in the house” after her husband’s conviction. 

"It can happen to me now, it can happen to your children and grandchildren.”

She is currently out on bail, pending appeals to higher courts. She is also facing 17 other charges of money laundering and tax evasion. On Aug. 23, her husband Najib was escorted straight to prison from court to serve a 12-year jail sentence, after being found guilty of diverting about $10 million from a public investment fund-linked company into his personal bank accounts. He is still on trial for four other corruption cases.

According to prosecutors, Rosmah sought a bribe of 187.5 million ringgit ($42 million) between 2016 and 2017 from a company that was trying to win a government solar power supply project. She received 6.5 million ringgit ($1.4 million) from an official at the same company after they won the contract. 

The prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the high court judge said on Thursday, ordering Rosmah to pay a fine of 970 million ringgit ($216 million). If she fails to pay the fine, her jail term may be extended to 30 years.

Since graft allegations surrounding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the country’s multibillion-dollar public investment fund launched in 2009 by Najib, surfaced in 2015, it has snowballed into one of the world’s largest financial and political scandals, implicating even the ranks of Wall Street and Hollywood.

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Estimates place the total stolen from the fund at $4.5 billion. As of August 2021, over $1.7 billion in stolen assets have been seized from misappropriated IMDB funds by the U.S. Justice Department, which called the case its “largest recovery to date.”

Jho Low, the billionaire financial adviser said to be the mastermind behind the theft—who is famous for, among other lavish expenses, paying Emily Ratajkowski to be his Super Bowl date—is today an international fugitive. 

But at the center of the whirlwind investigation is Najib, who suffered an election defeat in 2018 after nine years in power as a result of the 1MDB scandal. The scandal toppled the Barisan Nasional coalition government, ousting his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, which had continuously ruled Malaysia since independence until then.

Since his toppling, the couple has been subject to multiple investigations, during which police found an assortment of luxury items spread across their six properties—including 12,000 pieces of jewelry, over 400 watches, and 567 luxury handbags—believed to have been bought with money stolen from 1MDB. Najib officially earned a salary of 36,544 ringgit ($9,191) a month.

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“Rosmah is not seen as complicit in the 1MDB scandal. But what she’s widely seen as, because of her lavish lifestyle, is somebody putting direct pressure on Najib to go out and look for big money to maintain her lifestyle.”

Much like former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, Rosmah is known for her opulent lifestyle. While Marcos is known for her 3,000 pairs of shoes, Rosma is recognized for her penchant for Birkin bags, an exorbitant and super exclusive handbag made by luxury design house Hermes that can cost hundreds of thousands—sometimes even millions—of dollars. When police raided Rosmah’s house in 2018, they found several hundred boxes of Birkins—many believed to be gifted by businessmen in exchange for winning government contracts.  

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While Rosmah amassed luxury goods, she was conscious that her spending was the source of resentment for Malaysians, and apparently spent $22,300 a month hiring propagandists to deflect online criticism about her lifestyle. 

“Rosmah is not seen as complicit in the 1MDB scandal. But what she’s widely seen as, because of her lavish lifestyle, is somebody putting direct pressure on Najib to go out and look for big money to maintain her lifestyle,” James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, told VICE World News.

“Everyone understood that if you can’t get through to Najib, you can get through to [him] through the wife.”

Prosecutors had previously said that Rosmah’s “overbearing nature” allowed her to exert influence in Najib’s government, despite her not holding any official title. But Rosmah claimed that she was prohibited by Najib from interfering in government affairs, and that she never influenced her husband—claims that were dismissed by the court on Thursday. 

“I say this with the greatest of respect, but it is apparent that the accused dominates Najib,” the judge said

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In a phone call recording submitted to the court by prosecutors as evidence, which went viral on social media after it was first released by authorities in 2020, Rosmah can be heard admonishing her husband. 

“Can I advise you something?” She was heard saying in a commanding tone, instructing him on how to manage an unspecified matter. “I don’t like this. Darling, you are the prime minister, you should take charge, not anybody else, OK?” 

Rosmah had pleaded not guilty to the charges, claiming that she was framed by her former aide and other officials involved in the project. Her lawyers had asked for a one-day jail sentence. 

“I must admit that I'm very sad with what happened today,” Rosmah said on Thursday after the sentencing. “Nobody saw me taking the money, nobody saw me counting the money... but if that's the conclusion, I leave it to God.”

Chin said Rosmah is unlikely to go to prison anytime soon as her case undergoes appeal, and she may not even be incarcerated at all, if the political winds of change blow in her favor. 

“There is basically no merit to the claim that she’s a victim in this case. If you read the judgment it is very clear that the money trail leads directly to her,” he said. “As to whether she undergoes actual prison time, that would largely depend on the result of the next general election.” 

“If UMNO, Najib's party, does very well… then it's very likely that both she and her husband will come to some sort of a deal.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.