malaysia

How a $219,000 Handbag Helped Take Down a Prime Minister in Malaysia

For many voters, few things symbolized the corruption and greed at the heart of ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition better than his wife's Birkin bags.

by Lee Lian Kong
05 June 2018, 9:15pm

Photo credit: Rosmah Mansor by Erik De Castro/ Reuters, and Birkin bag by Christian Hartmann/ Reuters

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia

For the top 1 percent, owning a Birkin bag is a sign that you're finally "someone." And if you're Rosmah Mansor, that "someone" is Marie Antoinette.

Rosmah, the wife of now ousted Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, is no stranger to scandal. She and her husband have been in the middle of a sweeping corruption scandal where billions of USD in money meant for economic development vanished from government coffers—allegedly into the bank accounts of Najib and his cronies. This scandal, referred to by the shorthand 1MDB, has dogged Najib for years, with money ending up in some pretty weird places, including a $33.5 million USD condo in New York, a $250 million USD yacht in Indonesia, and the Hollywood movie Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio.

But Rosmah's insanely expensive handbag collection helped crystalize the scandal in ways all that banking jargon never could, explained Anis Khalidi, a 28-year-old former Barisan Nasional (BN) supporter who voted against Najib's coalition for the first time in this election.

“Imelda Marcos. Marie Antoinette. Rosmah Mansor. Their excess are the same," Anis told VICE. "When I finally realized this, I decided I didn’t want to live under such a government anymore."

On one side of the election was Najib and Rosmah, a couple who spent so much money on their children's ritzy weddings that the flowers alone totaled $750,000 USD. Then on the other side was 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's former prime minister, back for another term after winning the 9 May election, dressed in bush jackets, $25 USD Uniqlo button-downs, and $3 USD Bata slippers. Few things played better for the winning Pakatan Haripan (PH) coalition than their rivals' expensive taste.

PH's winning campaign carried a simple message: BN, under Najib, was tremendously corrupt, often at the expense of the Malaysian people. And the proof was right there hanging from Rosmah's arm. She owned not one, but several Birkin bags, a handbag made by Hermes that's so expensive, and so exclusive, that it's even hard for people who can afford the bag to actually buy one (unless you're Drake).

Photo by Erik De Castro/ Reuters

The campaign message really resonated with voters, so much so that they ousted BN for the first time since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, explained Amrita Malhi, an expert who studies Malaysian politics at Australian National University (ANU).

"They made this connection by pointing out that vast amounts of Malaysian taxpayers' funds had going missing, while Malaysians themselves were facing high prices of vegetables and fish," Amrita told VICE. "At exactly the same time Rosmah was busy purchasing expensive jewelry and handbags.

“This was a way of translating the scandal, which had previously been communicated in terms of billions of ringgit passing through extremely complicated international financial transfers, into a more down-to-earth idiom that voters could feel more empathy with."

Voters might not have been able to follow the spreading 1MDB scandal, but they could see how strange it was that Najib, a prime minister who had been in politics since his 20s, was somehow able to afford handbags that cost between $11,900 USD and $300,000 USD on a salary of 36,544 Malaysian ringgit ($9,191 USD) a month.

"I tried to look for positive reports about Najib, but when you look at Rosmah, you can't help but see that the money did go to his family, especially to her," Anis, who comes from a family of hardcore BN supporters, told VICE.

Few people in Malaysia know the power of the Brikin more than political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque. Zunar, as he is known in Malaysia, is currently facing down sedition charges for allegedly defaming Najib and his family.

Zunar worked for years without raising much interest in his satirical political cartoons. But then he started to draw handbags—specifically the Birkin—and things started to change. His cartoons suddenly struck a nerve.

“When I drew about shady submarine purchases, nobody debated about it on my Facebook account," he told VICE. "But when you draw rings and handbags, they do. They start questioning how government officials can buy such expensive bags, when regular housewives can only afford to buy [knock-offs] from Petaling Street."

Cartoon by Zunar, courtesy the artist

The average Malaysian earns about $500 USD a month, and here was Rosmah carrying around a handbag that cost more than a house in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Those handbags and rings provided a crucial link that the fractured opposition had, for two terms, failed to verbalize in a way everyone could latch onto, Zunar explained.

“My cartoon is to show that we are the ones that are paying for the corruption,” he said.

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, a 25-year-old member of Parliament who ran and won as part of the PH coalition, agreed. By the end of the campaign season, Rosmah was so dangerous to BN's repeated claims of innocence that party insiders reportedly tried to limit the number of times she appeared in public, Syed told VICE.

Syed denied that PH made a concerted effort to bring these allegations to the forefront of the campaign. The family's wealth was as clear as the diamonds in Rosmah's $27.3 million USD necklace.

"The damage was already done,” Syed said.