In May 2018, 12,000 pieces of jewellery, 423 watches and 567 luxury handbags stuffed with almost US$30 million (S$41 million) in cash – an estimated haul of US$273 million – were seized by Malaysian police from six properties linked to the family of the later disgraced former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.
Najib, now perhaps set for a political comeback, was convicted and sentenced last year to 12 years in prison over graft related to the 1MDB state investment fund scandal, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, is facing separate charges of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.
None of this came as a surprise to the couple’s critics, who had for years levelled allegations of corruption against Najib while documenting Rosmah’s apparent shopping addiction. Any outcries were always thwarted, however, by the couple’s denials and Malaysia’s largely state-controlled mainstream media.
Back in 2012, working away as usual in Australia, I found myself momentarily sucked into the vortex of the duo’s spend-and-spin after yet another lavish Rosmah shopping excursion.
It started with what appeared to be just another pitch from an Australian fashion PR agency seeking publicity for one of its clients.
What I thought would be a standard story ended up causing a media blow-up in Malaysia and staunch rebuttals from Rosmah, and as archived by Twitter, at one point Najib personally chimed in to slam my coverage as “a wildly exaggerated story deliberately fabricated to affect people’s perception of their leaders”.
It was Jan 16, 2012, when Holly Beer, a senior account manager at PR firm Little Hero, shared that Rosmah and her entourage had recently visited the Sydney boutique of one of the agency’s clients: South African-born fashion designer Carl Kapp.
Such was Rosmah’s interest in Kapp’s collections – Beer wrote under the email subject, Malaysia’s First Lady covets Carl Kapp – that the initial store visit had culminated in a personal follow-up presentation by Kapp and his business manager the following day at Rosmah’s Sydney hotel.
There, with Najib also present, Kapp presented his full range of colours and styles, took Rosmah’s measurements and finalised an order.
According to Beer, Rosmah “chose every one of the colours Carl presented”, ordering, on the spot, a total of 61 pieces from the designer’s spring/summer 2011-2012 and autumn/winter 2012 collections and also offering to fly Kapp to Kuala Lumpur in mid-February for a second round of fittings.
At the time, Kapp only made up to a size 14 off the rack, but offered made-to-measure for larger sizes. Beer explained that with Rosmah being larger than a size 14 and due to Muslim Malaysia’s modest clothing requirements, all the garments needed to be custom altered to include long sleeves and hems, with lots of trousers and no bare ankles or wrists.
It was, by anybody’s standards, a gargantuan order, which sources close to Kapp said approached A$100,000. And in her second email, Beer wrote that after the initial order was completed, Rosmah ordered even more pieces from Kapp.
Not being familiar with Rosmah’s name, a quick Google search revealed a series of reports, mostly from Malaysian blogs, about her growing infamy as Imelda Marcos 2.0.
In 2011 alone, a litany of coverage had focused on speculation, always flatly denied, that Rosmah had purchased a US$24 million diamond ring from New York jeweller Jacob & Co, and that she was the mystery buyer behind the US$203,150 sale of a rare red crocodile Hermès Birkin handbag with white gold and diamond hardware, at the time the most expensive handbag ever sold at public auction.
Over the years she had been photographed on various occasions carrying different Hermès Birkin bags, among the most expensive luxury handbags on the market, with prices starting at about U$10,000 and reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In May 2018, trolley loads of bright orange boxes – the signature colour of Hermès packaging – were among merchandise seized by Malaysian police from Najib’s properties.
I arranged a phone interview with Kapp for later that day, during which the designer told me the store visit had occurred on December 30, 2011, following a call from someone claiming to work for the Malaysian government, inquiring about the availability of limousine parking near his boutique in Paddington, one of Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.
Soon afterwards, Kapp received six people, one of whom he was introduced to as “The first lady of Malaysia”. Kapp was told that the group had come directly from Sydney department store David Jones, which was at the time selling its first season of Kapp’s brand.
“It was a bit overwhelming because I had a shop full of people as well,” Kapp said. “It started out at the shop, there was so much that she wanted. She followed me into the studio and started pointing at fabrics. I suggested I prepare a presentation.”
A private follow-up appointment took place at 6pm on Dec 31, in the penthouse of The Darling hotel at Pyrmont, a five-star hotel that had just opened as part of an A$870 million (S$857 million) revamp of The Star casino complex. Brand manager Yoko Sugiura handled the order while Kapp took Rosmah’s measurements.
“She asked me to come to Kuala Lumpur for fittings and I said, ‘If you take care of the travel arrangements, sure,’” said Kapp. “I can’t believe I’m actually flying over there for a fitting next month for an hour and a half. And then flying back out the next day. It was unbelievably surreal.”
(Kapp told me later Najib was present throughout the appointment, wearing a dressing gown.)
The next day, Jan 17, I published a post on my Frockwriter blog titled Carl Kapp’s Couture Capers in KL, adding a few additional details I had independently checked.
These included the room rate for the hotel’s penthouse – A$15,000 to A$20,000 a night – as well as the hotel’s confirmation that although the penthouse would not officially open to the public until April that year, it was definitely operational on New Year’s Eve, though they declined to confirm any guest details.
The Malaysian High Commission confirmed that Najib had been in Australia at the time on a private visit, which also included playing some golf.
Kapp seemed delighted with the story, sending me an SMS saying, “Thanks for the brilliant writeup!” as well as hitting the “Like” button on my Facebook post, and sharing it to his own profile.
After reporter Andrew Hornery, at The Sydney Morning Herald , contacted me to say he was interested in speaking with Kapp, the designer gave his consent for me to pass on his mobile number, and Hornery picked up the story for his January 21 column.
Amplified by a mainstream media outlet, the story swiftly exploded in Malaysia, initially picked up that evening by independent news site Malaysiakini, which reported having made an attempt to contact the prime minister’s office for comment.
Appearing at the Malaysian Chinese Association’s Lunar New Year open house event in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 23, Rosmah was besieged by journalists, telling Malaysiakini and The Sun, “It’s all rubbish, wildly exaggerated and not true.”
On Jan 25, Little Hero reappeared, issuing a media statement that essentially backtracked on every aspect of the story it had facilitated.
According to the release, the purchases from Kapp had not been made solely by Rosmah, but “separately” by various members of her party, including the chairman and organiser of the Islamic Fashion Festival.
The upcoming trip to Kuala Lumpur, moreover, was not “solely for the benefit of the Prime Minister’s wife” and nothing out of the ordinary for Kapp.
“Visits to various parts of Asia, including Malaysia […] are a regular part of my work calendar and ordinary course of business,” said Kapp in the release. It was a total volte face from the information previously relayed in writing by Beer, who had told me, “[Rosmah] is flying him to Kaula Lumpar [sic] mid-February for a second round of fittings”. Not to mention, the surreality expressed by Kapp during our interview about the imminent fly-in-fly-out trip.
The Little Hero release further fuelled the Malaysian news cycle, with Raja Rezza Shah, nephew of Sultan Ismail Petra of Kelantan and the founder of the Islamic Fashion Festival, stepping in. An apparently since-deleted Tweet, but one reported by Malaysiakini and other sites, announced the Kapp purchases were “stock” for his own shop in London, which promotes international designers.
Hornery, who is gay, suddenly found himself the target of a vilification campaign on Twitter, inundated with comments from trolls deriding his sexuality. Malaysiakini subsequently reported that the smear campaign had been engineered by a blogger linked to Najib’s Umno party.
On Feb 1, I published a second blog post, titled Close Encounters of the KL Kind, with a point-by-point rebuttal of Little Hero’s Jan 25 release as well as a cut-and-paste of the two original emails received from the agency.
The second story generated yet more coverage in Malaysia, with a printout of the post even taken to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) by the People’s Justice Party-linked non-profit organisation Jingga 13 – a follow-up to its original Jan 26 complaint lodged with MACC, following Hornery’s report, as documented in several Malaysiakini stories.
Although I did not report it at the time, in a much later post recapping Frockwriter’s highest traffic stories of 2012, I revealed that, according to sources close to Kapp, that first order Rosmah made in Sydney had been paid for upfront, in cash, out of Rosmah’s handbag.
And this was by no means the only controversy to erupt over the Najib family’s shopping activities in Australia in late 2011.
In November that year, Najib had already had to hose down an Oct 31 story in The West Australian about alleged shopping sprees by Rosmah and his daughter in Perth, during that month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings in the city.
Headlined “Delegates Go Shopping, Sightseeing”, the story reported that Najib’s daughter had spent A$60,000 in Perth’s David Jones store and that “one first lady” had spent A$150,000 on West Australian pearls.
As also archived by Twitter, Najib responded to questions about the report on Nov 4, 2011, on the platform, saying: “Don’t believe n spread lies. My daughter was not even in Australia n my wife did not buy any jewellery.”
The next day, The West Australian issued a correction, stating that its report about Najib’s daughter shopping at David Jones was incorrect and that she had not been in Australia at the time.
After a random 2014 encounter with a former staffer at the Dior concession within David Jones’ Elizabeth Street flagship store in Sydney – who did not want to be identified – the woman told me that on Dec 28, 2011, Rosmah had walked into the Dior boutique with a small entourage, then turned to a wall of handbags on display.
“She pointed, with an elegantly raised finger, at the Lady Diors she wanted to take, a variety of different shades and leathers,” said the former Dior staffer, who not only claims to have personally handled the sale of the Lady Diors, but also documented it by taking a photo of 20 piles of A$1,000 in bills on a table in the boutique’s storage area and then immediately shared the photo on her personal Facebook account.
In a date-stamped post seen by Post Magazine, the photo is captioned “What the first lady of Malaysia just dropped at DJ’s Christian Dior”, attracting a number of comments from friends.
David Jones did not respond to multiple requests for information about the retailer’s protocols vis-à-vis large cash sales and its reporting obligations to Australian regulators.
But according to a former senior executive who was with the company in 2011, there was at the time a strict policy to manage money laundering, which mandated that all cash sales over A$10,000 had to be reported immediately to management and then to the board.
According to the former Dior staffer, Rosmah and her entourage had ventured down to Dior’s ground-level outlet after spending some time on David Jones’ designer fashion and shoe floors upstairs.
The visit had sparked a frisson of excitement among David Jones staff, she said, since besides the Dior haul, “allegedly she had just spent A$250,000 upstairs”.
By : PATTY HUNTINGTON – SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST