By EILEEN NG
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — In 10 days of dramatic political developments, none has transfixed Malaysians more than the sight of truckloads of orange boxes containing Hermes Birkin handbags and luggage filled with cash and jewelry being seized from apartments linked to former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was known for her love of Birkin bags and her opulent lifestyle, but television footage of the police haul has Malaysia gasping with shock. It is possibly the most sensational image of elite corruption in Asia in the three decades since former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos and her extravagant collection of designer shoes.
Thousands of Malaysians followed a livestream on social media of the police raid at an upscale condominium in Kuala Lumpur late Thursday that was part of a corruption and money-laundering investigation into the 1MDB state investment fund that Najib set up and is being investigated abroad.
Police said Friday they confiscated 284 handbags, mostly Birkins, and 72 suitcases containing cash, jewelry, watches and other valuable items that filled five police trucks from the condominium. In addition, police seized dozens of other designer handbags, cash and other valuables from Najib’s house.
The labels on some of the boxes seen by The Associated Press described some of the bags as a “navy blue crocodile skin with diamond,” a “blue with diamonte” crocodile skin Hermes and a gray crocodile skin Hermes. All appeared to be new and bought abroad, including in Paris and Switzerland in 2013 and 2015. Luxury publications say a Birkin can cost from $12,000 to more than $200,000.
Rosmah’s fetish for bags has been compared to Marcos’ collection of shoes. More than 1,200 pairs of designer shoes including gold-trimmed imports were found in the Philippine presidential palace after she and her dictator husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, fled a “people power” revolt that toppled the regime in 1986.
Ferdinand Marcos used his power to accumulate an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion, but it was his wife’s treasures that stamped the couple’s excesses in the collective memory of their poor nation and the world.
Rosmah was reviled by many Malaysians as an avaricious first lady, and similar to Marcos, her collection of bags and jewelry, which allegedly includes a $23 million rare pink diamond necklace bought with 1MDB money, reflected the extent of the family’s excesses.
U.S. investigators say Najib’s associates stole and laundered $4.5 billion from the fund, some of which also landed in Najib’s bank account. Najib, whose coalition was ousted in a stunning election defeat after 60 years in power last week, denies any wrongdoing.
Police commercial crime chief Amar Singh said simultaneous raids were also conducted at several other locations including Najib’s family house, his former office as prime minister and an official residence. Documents related to 1MDB were taken from the office and police are still trying to crack open a safe in Najib’s house, he said.
Singh declined to say if the haul would lead to an indictment of Najib. The search for evidence continues, he said.
Social media was filled with comments from angry Malaysians who want to see Najib and his wife jailed. In contrast, new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was lauded for being thrifty after being spotted at an event wearing a $4 pair of locally made sandals.
Mahathir, 92, reopened a probe into 1MDB after leading an opposition alliance to victory in the May 9 polls. He was prime minister for 22 years until 2003 but emerged from retirement spurred by anger over the 1MDB scandal.
Mahathir, now the world’s oldest elected leader, has said initial investigations showed the scale of wrongdoing by Najib’s administration was more serious than thought. He said arrests will be made when there is evidence, and there would be “no deal” with Najib.
Police have spent 20 hours since late Wednesday searching Najib’s house, and several police cars arrived at Najib’s house Friday morning, fueling speculation his arrest may be imminent. Najib and his wife have been barred from traveling overseas.
Mahathir has said the government will seek to retrieve billions of dollars laundered from 1MDB to repay government debts that have piled up over the years. The government has also told the current attorney general, who cleared Najib of wrongdoing in 2016, to go on leave, and has relieved the country’s treasury chief, who is also the 1MDB chairman.
The government has set up a five-member committee, including a former attorney general and an adviser to Indonesia’s Financial Services Authority, to handle the 1MDB case.