Frustrated in his continuing attempt to bring down Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has turned his sights on a new and vulnerable target – the prime minister’s big-spending wife, Rosmah Mansor.
“He is going to go after her with everything he’s got,” said a longtime political operative. “When [Mahathir] was trying to drive out [former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi] in 2009, he went after Dollah’s wife [Jeanne Abdullah]. He even criticized Dollah’s former wife after she had died. He will use any weapon he can get his hands on. He is not going to let up.”
Mahathir has been attacking Najib over a wide range of issues including the indebted state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the eight year-old murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, the rising cost of living, the implementation of a goods and services tax and the falling popularity of the United Malays National Organization, which he lays at Najib’s door.
It is unknown how much traction Mahathir has. Many view him, at age 89, as a man long past his time and a curmudgeon who has attacked every prime minister the country has ever had. Although Najib’s poll ratings have been falling, the country – as Mahathir points out – faces serious economic headwinds from retreating commodity prices and steep government debt, which is as much to blame for Najib’s popularity woes as anything. Sources who have met with Najib and his advisers say they are unconcerned about Mahathir’s attacks. The prime minister has skillfully pulled UMNO cadres into Kuala Lumpur for repeated votes of confidence.
The government-controlled press resounds with praise for him. Blogs allied with Najib criticize Mahathir, saying he only wants to replace Najib with his son Mukhriz as prime minister, a charge Mahathir denies. Mahathir has unleashed allied bloggers as surrogates to go after Najib as well.
But in Rosmah Mahathir has an inviting target: a portly 63-year-old woman whose imperial ways and enormously expensive rings, watches and handbags have long attracted attention. The bags she has been photographed carrying typically cost $9,000 up to $150,000 each, and, if the New York press is to be believed, she also likes to sip top-shelf champagne while hobnobbing with US entertainment figures, an image at odds with being a good Muslim wife.
An irreverent website called Mywatch recently posted pictures of Malaysian politicians’ wristwatches. According to the website, Rosmah was photographed on four different occasions wearing different watches including a Richard Mille Lady RM 007 [US$134,000], a Hublot BB Black Magic 114 [US$22,150], a Hublot BB Black Magic 48 Baguette [US$63,000] and a Franck Muller Master Square Date Diamonds [US$42,500]. A sensational 6,000 word story in the New York Times on Feb. 8 alleged that its reporters had seen invoices and other documents showing Rosmah had ordered diamond, emerald and ruby rings and bracelets in Hong Kong in 2008 and 2009 that ran into the millions of US dollars.
On April 20, in his blog Chedet, Mahathir called attention to the couple’s extravagance. “There are many things about his personal behavior that I thought were not right. But I was prepared to overlook them, including he and his wife’s lavish lifestyle,” he wrote.
At one point, as protest was rising over the goods and services tax, Rosmah went online to complain about the RM1,200 salon construction cost of her huge hairdo.
Big Fat Malaysian Wedding
What has concentrated attention even more was the recent lavish wedding of the couple’s daughter, Nooryana Najwa, to Daniyar Kessibayev, a Kazak native whom she met as a student at Georgetown University in the US. Mahathir himself on April 25 attacked the opulence of the event, calling it "a wedding of the century."
The wedding, which took place in multiple locations over several days including the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center and in Najib’s home town in Kuantan, reportedly drew thousands of guests. Pictures show decorations that can only be described as astounding. One source told Asia Sentinel he estimated the cost of roses alone to be in the millions of ringgit. Guests described a scene of enormous opulence. Mahathir accused Najib of flying 300 friends to Kazakhstan to meet Kessibayev's parents and demanded to know who paid for it.
Najib and Rosmah mingled with the guests while waiting for the bride and groom. According to the national news service Bernama, the couple arrived at the lake garden site in Kuantan clad in matching light purple traditional costumes and accompanied by a group of Malaysian martial arts exponents.
Other, more serious, issues surround the family. In 2013, an Indian businessman, Deepak Jaikishan, charged he had conducted nearly US$1 billion worth of business dealings for the first lady, although he didn’t go into detail. He also issued receipts to the press detailing US$4 million worth of jewelry receipts from two Hong Kong outlets that he alleged he had purchased for her.
Influence at the top
Deepak once said he was close enough to Rosmah to call her his "big sister." He has told a string of opposition and independent websites he interceded at her request to shut up Perumal Balasubramaniam, a Kuala Lumpur-based private detective who alleged in a sworn declaration in 2008 that Najib had had a sexual relationship with Altantuya, the Mongolian national at the center of a massive corruption scandal who was murdered in 2006 by two of Najib’s bodyguards.
In addition to her taste in jewelry, Rosmah has raised hackles about her influence on government. Particularly galling to some is her claiming the title of Malaysia’s first lady, a title usually reserved for the wife of the king. There is a six-person unit in the prime minister’s office, known as FLOM, an acronym for First Lady of Malaysia, to look after her needs, a far cry from the wives of previous prime ministers such as Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, Mahathir’s austere physician wife.
Sources say Rosmah also has continually inserted herself in the political process. She is said to have been responsible for spending as much as RM80 million in a 15-month campaign to refurbish the Prime Minister’s residence.
In 2010, Joshua Wong, then the producer of the popular Malaysian current affairs program "Editor’s Time," resigned, charging that the NTV7 channel, which is controlled by UMNO, buckled under from complaints from the Prime Minister’s Department and Rosmah personally about coverage of opposition politicians. Other newspaper editors complain that she frequently calls to complain about coverage of both her and her husband.
It was the lengthy New York Times story, however, that raised the stakes, describing purchases of property by a young Malaysian financier named Jho Low – who is a key figure in MDB ‑ including an almost US$24 million unit in Manhattan and a US$17.5 million mansion in Beverly Hills plus another US$30.55 million condominium overlooking Central Park in New York. The beneficial owner of all three properties was Riza Aziz, Rosmah’s son by her first marriage. The 36-year-old Riza occupied a relatively minor position with a bank in London, raising questions where the money came from.
Najib has consistently denied he became rich through corruption, although a long investigation by Asia Sentinel into the purchase of French submarines when Najib was minister of defense, the purchase of Sukhoi jets from Russia and a contract to build scores of patrol boats that were never turned over to the navy raised substantial questions over kickbacks.