I don’t recall when I first heard the name Rosmah Mansor, but I clearly remember that whatever was said about her wasn’t exactly flattering.
Indeed, I can’t think of any Malaysian public figure around whom swirls so many ugly rumors and who is more feared and loathed – apart from, of course, Mahathir Mohamad.
Born 10 December 1951 in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, to schoolteacher parents, Rosmah holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Universiti Malaya, as well as a Master’s in sociology and agriculture from Louisiana State University, from which she graduated in 1978. She then joined Bank Pertanian as an executive and, in 1983, switched to property development with Island & Peninsular. Those were boom years in the local economy and Rosmah did extremely well selling expensive properties to nouveau-riche Umnoputras, especially political bigwigs.
There was talk that she was eyeing Rahim Thamby Chik, then Chief Minister of Melaka. However, her foxy instincts served her well and she redirected her feminine charms at another rising star in Umno, Najib Razak, then Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports. In 1987, Najib divorced Tengku Puteri Zainah Tengku Eskandar, his first wife, and married Rosmah Mansor.
A Nasty Reputation
Even as Najib Razak craftily navigated his way through the Byzantine intrigues of Umno politics, Rosmah Mansor was acquiring a nasty reputation in her own inimitable style. Stories began to circulate about her penchant for expensive trinkets and how she would unashamedly throw her weight around, intimidating owners of jewelry stores for outrageous discounts. One apocryphal tale relates how she even threatened to shut down the business if they didn’t accede to her demands – and having been appeased with the offer of a free gift worth tens of thousands, she simply took the gift and walked out without buying the item she had originally haggled over.
How does one explain such an unsavory personality trait? It has to be examined in the context of provincial Malay culture, which is still largely feudalistic at its core. Social status is extremely important to the rural psyche and any ambitious ego would certainly strive to amass sufficient material wealth and political influence to qualify for entry into the rarefied realms of the traditional aristocracy.
Some say Rosmah Mansor is Malaysia’s version of Dr Faustus, a respected scholar who, in his overweening ambition to unravel the secrets of the universe through the practice of dark sorcery, mortgages his soul to the Devil. In Rosmah’s case it isn’t knowledge that she craves, but queenly power. We are hardly surprised, then, that she would dub herself “First Lady of Malaysia” shortly after her husband’s anointment as sixth prime minister (or crime minister, as some prefer to call him) – a title reserved for the wives of presidents or, in the case of Malaysia, the Raja Permaisuri Agong.
Her desperate hunger for self-glorification knows no bounds. This is, in fact, her greatest weakness, and it has been exploited by her business proxies who conspire to gratify her enormous ego with “sponsored” accolades like the dubious “International Peace and Harmony Award” conferred on her on 16 April 2010 by the Business Council for International Understanding in New York. This was commemorated with a double-page full-color ad in the New York Times which was signed off: “Best wishes from family and friends in USA and Malaysia.” A full-page black-and-white ad in the prestigious New York Times can cost up to $230,000 (RM736,000). It has been estimated that a double-page full-color center-spread would cost at least twice that amount.
On 11 February 2012 Curtin University, which enjoys close ties with the Malaysian education ministry, conferred an honorary doctorate on Rosmah Mansor. This news triggered a wave of ridicule and outrage, particularly among former Curtin graduates who protested that the university had debased and degraded itself by pandering to the whims of the widely-loathed FLOM (acronym for First Lady of Malaysia which those with barbed tongues often read as Fat Lady of Malaysia).
To be fair, we must concede that Rosmah certainly possesses enough smarts to have earned that doctorate, since she obtained her Master’s degree from Louisiana State University long before she achieved notoriety as Najib Razak’s spouse.
Indeed, on 7 May 2012, Rosmah acquired another honorary doctorate, this time from the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris in Tanjong Malim – and on 20 June 2013 she was conferred yet another honorary doctorate and even made an honorary professor – but this time the news created hardly a ripple, since it was from Kazakhstan University (and everybody knows Rosmah’s daughter, Nooryana Najwa, is married to Daniyar Nazarbayev, step-nephew of the President of Kazakhstan).
Ironically, the more vainglorious one’s ego, the less admirable one appears in other’s eyes. Surrounding herself with sycophantic courtiers and obsequious bottom feeders, Rosmah has turned into a walking caricature of evil personified, reminding us of Walt Disney’s tyrannical witch queen Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (who commands a palace guard of mindless minions ever ready to defend her public image against all detractors).
Indeed, such is her clout around the palace in 'Putrakaya' (where those who have gained instant wealth by manipulating an “affirmative” economic policy based on spurious notions of racial supremacy have entrenched themselves) she has been granted hundreds of millions for her assorted pet projects – none of which is subject to public scrutiny or financial accountability – and even her own quasi-governmental department with a salaried staff. When the FLOM website was launched, the public outcry was so loud it was quickly shut down within days.
Although Rosmah’s distinctive hairdo (which resembles a pharaonic headpiece) has been the brunt of political cartoonists (notably Zunar) she has nonetheless been taken seriously enough by world leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, who insisted on paying her a personal visit during his official Malaysian tour in June 2009. Speculation was rife about what might have been discussed. Political pundits pointed to Lee’s paying Rosmah homage as a clear sign that she was indeed the real power behind her pink-lipped husband’s throne.
When Rosmah flew to the 4th Qatar International Businesswoman’s Forum on a government-funded executive jet – and then stopped over in Dubai to do some shopping and hobnob with Princess Haya, wife of the ruler of Dubai – another hue and cry was raised in parliament by the opposition. Under questioning it was revealed that the average “official” flight costs nearly RM500,000. Less than a week earlier, the nation had been shocked to learn that Rosmah and Najib’s annual electricity bill amounted to RM2.2 million.
Red Queen and Knaves
Clearly, the problem with Rosmah Mansor is that she revels in the imaginary splendor of living the luxurious lifestyle of ancient queens in an age when such excesses only invite disgust and odium. Nevertheless, to the BN ministers beholden to her husband, Rosmah can do no wrong and they have stuck their necks out in her defence.
Then something soured the relationship and Deepak began to hold media conferences denouncing the FLOM and even released online a poorly written book (The Black Rose) detailing her reliance on talismans and magical spells. Not too many eyebrows were raised, however, as Malaysians had long known about Rosmah’s superstitious dependence on dark sorcery, even dubbing her “Perempuan Puaka” (meaning witchy woman).
In the digital age, not many take seriously the idea of black magic or voodoo – and perhaps that is why they can unwittingly succumb to it. How so? The secret history of political power on this earth has from time immemorial been associated with occult forces. In The Origins of Man and Universe: The Myth that Came to Life the mystic philosopher Barry Long hypothesized that the first tribal chiefs were shamans whose advanced psychic powers awed and intimidated others into following their vision of reality. Despite all the trappings of modernity a vast majority of people still cling to a superstitious belief in sorcery – and it is this barely concealed fear of the unknown that makes them susceptible to being hypnotized and subtly possessed by strongly focused wills.
When Najib Razak was nominated Umno president by 191 allegedly bought-off party division chiefs and installed as prime minister on 3 April 2009, video footage revealed a beaming Rosmah Mansor luxuriating in her moment of victory. Very quickly a strange pall of petty bickering descended upon the opposition parties, resulting in a slew of defections, which had a depressing effect on an electorate yearning for radical change.
The sense of larger community is replaced by aggressive surges of communal self-interest; individual egos become more isolated in their sense of separateness from others – and therefore more prone to acts of violence against others when threatened by acute financial despair.
Tim Burton released his version of the classic Alice in Wonderland in 2010 which carried a strong undercurrent of social and political commentary. In Burton’s film, decay and entropy lay waste to a once beautiful world, and the inhabitants are subdued and oppressed by fascist control mechanisms. Under the Red Queen's demented and tyrannical rule, Wonderland becomes Underland - a subterranean dream/nightmare with surreal overtones, where the Jubjub Bird and the Frumious Bandersnatch and the Burbling Jabberwock serve as the Red Queen's law enforcement agencies. A riot squad of playing cards stands ready to quell rebellion with the Underlandish equivalent of tear gas and water cannons - and bloodhounds are blackmailed into the Knave of Hearts's secret service.
But all ends well when the innocent and pure-hearted Alice arrives in Underland, summoned by the White Rabbit (who symbolizes a civil service loyal to the land and not a specific political faction), wields the Vorpal Sword (of enhanced intelligence) and lops off the head of the Jabberwock (the Specter of May 13 and divide-and-rule politics). The White Queen reclaims her throne, life springs anew, and joy returns to Bolehland, oops, I mean, Wonderland.
[From Malaysia Chronicle, 21 November 2013. First posted 14 January 2014]