Do shoes, jewellery and purses portend corruption?

One can certainly think back to Imelda Marcos when considering the number of shoes a First Lady might need (she reportedly had over 6,000 pairs). Yet what does it mean when the First Lady of a country, whose sole source of (reported) income is her husband’s salary of US$100,000, racks up over US$6 million in credit card charges in seven years? I thought about that question when I read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal that detailed some of the spending of Malaysian First Lady, Rosmah Mansor.

This spending allegedly occurred between 2008 and 2015; a period when the First Lady had no source of known income other than her husband’s salary. The WSJ article noted: “At least US$1 million in purchases made by Ms Rosmah at jewellery and fashion stores in Europe and the United States in 2014 were paid for by Mr Najib using credit cards that drew on 1MDB funds.”

However, the WSJ has now seen documents that “show those expenses are part of at least US$6 million in spending by Ms Rosmah between 2008 and 2015 on clothing, shoes and jewellery from London’s Harrods department store, Saks Fifth Avenue of New York and elsewhere”.

Ms Mansor no doubt channels her inner Inspector Clouseau who, when asked in the first Pink Panther movie how his wife could have such an extensive set of diamonds, said: “My wife is very frugal” (She got them from her lover, the notorious jewel thief, the Pink Panther). The Malaysian First Lady has said that she “has a habit of saving”. Furthermore, she wrote in her 2013 autobiography: “I have bought some jewellery and dresses with my own money. What is wrong with that?”

All of this adds to the trouble facing the Malaysian First Family in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, where there are allegations of looting the country’s sovereign wealth fund for personal gain. The First Lady has long been a polarising figure in Malaysian politics with her “jewel-bedecked public appearances”. The responses to her claims of personally saving up the money for these purchases were perhaps best summed up by Anis Syafiqah Mohd, a 24-year-old student from the University of Malaya, who was quoted in the article saying: “She said she saved that money since she was small. That is impossible.” Indeed.

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