Top image: Wikimedia Commons
How the mighty and her designer handbags have fallen.
On 1st September, the High Court of Kuala Lumpur found Rosmah Mansor, the wife of ousted former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, guilty of seeking and receiving bribes in exchange for a government contract. She was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined RM970 million (S$303 million).
Her sentencing came a week after Najib began serving a 12-year jail sentence over a case related to a multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
While the frenzy of news reports painted a picture of a criminal pair’s disgraceful downfall, little has been reported about what ordinary Malaysians think and feel about their conviction and sentencing. And Rosmah’s infamous collection of tiaras and Birkin bags.
Together with my Malaysian counterpart, a media practitioner at an online news portal, we unpack the impact and emotional reactions of people on the ground at the back of this ongoing political drama.
What are Malaysians saying about the Rosmah Mansor court case?
Mostly, people point out that it’s ridiculous that she stole money from needy children in Sabah. Yeah. That’s most of the sentiment in Malaysia—that it’s disgusting. Somebody can do this and then have the audacity to claim, “Oh, I never touched a dime,” especially when the evidence clearly says otherwise.
The general public seems disgusted by her defence and how blatantly unremorseful she is. This woman wears jewellery and tiaras in her house, and now she’s saying money isn’t everything? Yucks.
Then there’s also the bit where she plays the saintly mother, which just doesn’t vibe. At all. If you’re such a saintly mother, where were your children when you left the courthouse?
Her daughter, Nooryana, isn’t supportive?
I don’t know if you noticed, but Nooryana mostly talks about her dad on social media. She doesn’t talk about her mom much, if at all.
Rosmah’s other daughter, Azrene, from her previous marriage, is more vocal, but she says that the court made the right call [laughs]. As you can imagine, Azrene is not a big fan of her mom, lah.
Oh, I saw that on Facebook. Azrene said that she was emotionally, physically, and mentally abused by Rosmah.
Rosmah is somewhat universally hated except by the people who benefited from her.
Hated? You said hated, right?
Yes. Hated. I have friends in [United Malays National Organisation] who are not even shy about how much they hate her.
Once, she went to a UMNO general council meeting and addressed the attendees. Why was she allowed to speak? She’s just somebody’s wife. There were grumblings that the members weren’t even allowed to bring their spouses, and they were all elected representatives. She was also ordering people around and being very demanding at the meeting. She’s just universally unliked, lah.
How about Najib Razak? What sort of memes are Malaysians creating in response to his conviction?
I mean, there’s the Caramel Machiatto movement.
So, last week, Nooryana shared an Instagram story saying how sad and guilty she felt when grocery shopping, lah. She felt guilty and couldn’t even bring herself to order a caramel macchiato because it reminded her of Najib since it was his favourite drink, apparently. After that, people went online and bought Caramel Macchiatos for themselves as a way to mock Nooryana’s tone-deaf IGS.
So is it safe to say that this whole affair, this juicy political drama, has transcended, and it has changed from becoming something very serious to something that the public sees as so ridiculous? That it’s so absurd that you just have to make fun of it.
I think that’s how Malaysians deal with such issues. I don’t know how Singaporeans react to such things, but in Malaysia, we are pretty fast with memes. Especially when it comes to Rosmah and Najib. Those memes come hard and fast. It’s a coping mechanism, I believe.
Even then, several people are still pretty vocal about their support for Najib and Rosmah.
So in Malaysia, you have your golongan marhaen, the commoners. And then you have your elite amongst the people like Najib, the aristocrats. Between these two, there’s another tier—the Remora Fish.
You mean the fish that sticks closely to the shark?
Yes! Remoras stick to the shark’s side and feed on its scraps—its leftover food. In reality, they are just a bunch of people who follow these big sharks throughout their lives. And they see themselves as better than the rest of us because they get to eat with the sharks.
They still think that even with Najib’s and Rosmah’s convictions and jail time?
You see, Zat, Najib and Rosmah both had so much money, which they threw around. A lot of people benefited from their extravagance. People don’t realise that all the money they give away is nothing compared to what they keep for themselves. It’s like somebody came and robbed your house, took everything you own but left you food for lunch tomorrow.
These Remora fish will stand up for the two because they want Najib and Rosmah to return so they can continue to leech off them again.
How much money are we talking about here that they keep for themselves?
It’s an absurd amount. In an Al Jazeera report, the US Department of Justice alleges that some “$4.5b was stolen from 1MDB, some of which ended up in Najib’s private bank accounts.”
Rosmah has fourteen tiaras that she can’t even wear out. She has jewellery that she can’t wear out. All she does is polish them at home. Can you imagine wanting so much wealth that you buy all these decadent and absurdly expensive things even when you know you can’t wear them publicly? She’s like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs when he wears the skin of the women he murdered as a suit. It’s the same.
The absurdity of it is pretty startling. But the fact that this is really happening makes it unbelievable. But with what has happened with Najib and Rosmah and the slew of other politicians being charged with bribery, do you think people still trust the government now?
The executive is probably quite unpopular at this point. Actually, all politicians are pretty unpopular at this moment in time, to be honest. This new government is not very well-liked because they weren’t voted in by the country. Well, at least half weren’t voted in.
So it’s kind of like this weird hybrid creature that citizens are a bit uneasy or uncertain about. It’s a mess. And it was a bad call to try and take over a government in that manner, to be honest.
Do you think Malaysia will ever get a perfect parliament?
No, that’s an impossibility. Because the nature of democracy is that it’s imperfect. It exists at the whims of the general public, who are genuinely not interested in politics.
The thing is, Malaysians like to support political parties, not the actual representative. They think it’s easier because they don’t have to research or study about their MPs or know what he’s doing. They don’t have to keep a close eye on them. They just vote for the party that they think is the best or not the worst.
Still, regardless of what parties control the majority in Parliament, there will always be corruption, right? I mean, Mahathir criticises Najib and other Prime Ministers for being corrupt. Things weren’t as clean during his time, either. It’s like a pot-meet-kettle kind of situation.
There’s a difference. With Mahathir, I give you this contract, I give you the money, you make sure it happens, and then you can take your cut. With Najib, I give you this contract, you take the cut, but the work doesn’t happen. The project tak jalan (doesn’t move)? Never mind. You take your cut first.
Look at Mahathir’s projects—KLCC, KLIA, Sepang. All these projects were seen to completion. What project did Najib bring to fruition? Only the TRX tower. That’s pretty much it.
Do you think this will always be the way?
Najib’s conviction makes me believe that maybe he won’t. His conviction and jail sentence was the first time I thought this might be the future. Perhaps now, the people at the top will be held accountable for the corruption, and it will trickle down—it never works upwards.
So you can arrest cops, corrupt teachers or businessmen at the lower levels. Still, unless you get the people at the top, you can never stop corruption in Malaysia. Najib’s arrest and sentence is the first time I think this might actually work. That corruption in Malaysia won’t just be a thing that everyone comes to expect, accept, and work their way around.