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Facing some 20 charges related to misconduct in Malaysia's 1MDB state fund, former first lady Rosmah Mansor's private hoard of luxury goods took 150 officials nearly one month to catalog.   © AP
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Hardly 'shabby' chic: Rosmah Mansor's trial looms

Taste for Hermes and diamonds highlighted in 1MDB case

KUALA LUMPUR -- It is "embarrassing for Malaysians when other countries tease the prime minister's wife for being shabby," Rosmah Mansor, Malaysia's former first lady, wrote in her 2013 authorized biography. "As a woman and as the wife of a leader, I have to look presentable, neat and take care of my appearance."

No one could have accused Rosmah of personal neglect. In public, she frequently emerged from official cars swathed in colorful silks, wearing designer sunglasses.

Yet even Malaysians accustomed to seeing their well turned-out first lady were shocked to learn of her vast appetite for luxury goods. A week after her husband, Najib Razak, was deposed as prime minister, Malaysians sat gripped by their smartphone and television screens as police swooped on more than 10 properties linked to the former politician. Over weeks of raids, more than 1.1 billion ringgit ($268 million) worth of goods were carried out of Najib's many houses and apartments: cash, jewelry, designer handbags.

"Of course we are shocked," said Amar Singh, the federal police force's head of commercial crime, briefing reporters before cameras. "I think this is the biggest seizure in the country's history."

It took 150 police personnel nearly a month to catalog the haul, which included 423 watches, 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, and cash equivalent to about $28.3 million in 26 currencies. Among Rosmah's 567 handbags was a custom-made Bijan, worth around 1.6 million ringgit, from the appointment-only Beverly Hills boutique -- a status symbol favored by royal families and heads of state. More than half the bags were by Paris-based couturier Hermes.

The media were quick to compare Rosmah to Imelda Marcos, the Philippine former first lady known for her penchant for designer shoes.

The items were gifts from friends and foreign dignitaries, Najib has maintained. Ordinary Malaysians, however, have been skeptical.

"Normal people do not keep so much at home," said Yvonne Lim, a college administrator.

Rich as the haul was, there was a conspicuous omission: a $27 million pink diamond necklace, believed to have been gifted to Rosmah by Malaysian financier Jho Low.

Low, still a fugitive, was pinpointed by the U.S. Department of Justice as the mastermind behind $2.7 billion siphoned from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. In court documents filed by the department on Oct. 3 last year, online chat exchanges between Low and Tim Leissner -- a former Goldman Sachs banker also charged with bribery and money laundering -- discussed the need to "suck up" to a 1MDB official, widely understood to be Najib, and send "cakes" to his wife.

Najib said the 22-carat pendant was a gift from a member of the United Arab Emirates royal family in an interview with Al Jazeera last year. He did not know its whereabouts, he said.

Arrested and released on bail like her husband Najib, Rosmah awaits trial for some 20 charges related to corruption and tax evasion. One case alleges that Rosmah solicited a 187.5 million ringgit bribe from a company, helping them secure a 1.25 billion ringgit state contract to electrify rural schools.

Rosmah entered two not-guilty pleas late last year, and has otherwise remained silent. Najib, on the other hand, has taken to social media almost daily to criticize the current Mahathir government. He has also denied the allegations against him. 

Born to parents who were small-town teachers, Rosmah wrote about her humble beginnings in the 2013 memoir.

"I hope people accept the reality that I am a regular human being," she said. "I am not perfect."

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