Malaysia politics: $4 sandals vs luxury Birkin bags

By Heather Chen
BBC News

image source, BATA/Getty Images
image captionCheap but comfy sandals vs coveted Hermes Birkin bags

There's a classic quote from Sex and the City that goes: "It's not a bag. It's a Birkin".

The French luxury handbag, an international symbol of wealth and status, made a return to the spotlight this week in an unlikely place: a shopping trolley pushed by police in Malaysia.

Late Wednesday night, dozens of armed police officers raided the private apartments of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, a week after his dramatic election defeat to former ally, Mahathir Mohammad.

In further raids on properties linked to him, police seized more than 200 boxes of luxury items, along with 72 bags of jewellery, cash of various denominations, watches and other valuables.

image source, EPA
image captionBoxes after boxes of Hermes Birkin bags were carted away on high security police trucks

Among the haul were dozens of orange boxes containing Hermes bags (orange is the brand's signature colour) apparently belonging to former first lady Rosmah Mansor.

A Hermes Birkin bag can cost anything from $8,000 (£6,000) to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Much of the police action was live-streamed online, so Malaysians have watched as the precious bags were loaded on to supermarket shopping trolleys ("The irony of this scene," tweeted one Malaysian) before being loaded on to waiting police trucks and taken away.

Mr Najib's lawyer has complained that the raids amount to "unwarranted harassment" and that the items seized "would seem of insignificant value".

But for many Malaysians, the haul symbolises the corruption allegations and reported lavish living which contributed to Mr Najib's downfall.

Malaysian police have confirmed that the raids on properties across the capital, Kuala Lumpur, were related to investigations into 1MDB, a major corruption scandal.

image source, Reuters
image captionMr Najib and his wife have both denied accusations linking them to 1MDB corruption

Mr Najib is accused of pocketing some $700m from the fund, which was meant to boost foreign investment in the country.

He has always denied this and has been cleared by Malaysian authorities. But he is still being investigated in several other countries - and may face charges again in Malaysia.

According to the US Justice Department, billions of dollars are missing.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Over the years, Ms Rosmah's indulgent shopping habits and her love for branded goods have cultivated widespread resentment from many Malaysians.

So on social media, the raids fuelled intense discussion. #Birkin has been trending on Twitter.

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"Victoria Beckham is well known for owning as many as 100 Birkin bags but it looks like someone else might have taken over her throne," said this Twitter user. "I just don't understand why Rosmah needed 284 pieces," tweeted another user Aisyah Sukor.

Some even said they were not aware that such luxurious bags existed until Ms Rosmah came along.

Although one blogger from Kedah state pointed out: "The bags are ugly but they are better investments than gold."

The raid has earned Ms Rosmah comparisons to another infamous first lady, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, notorious for her love for shoes and jewellery.

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But the scrutiny over the fashion choices of Malaysia's former ruling party did not stop at Birkin handbags. A Facebook post showcasing Malaysian politicians and the extravagant watches they wear has also been making waves on Facebook this week.

Koleksi jam tangan ahli politik malaysia....

Posted by Penang La Nii on Saturday, May 12, 2018
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In contrast - and with remarkably good timing - the new prime minister was spotted this week wearing a pair of common brown sandals at a mosque.

Mahathir Mohamad's supporters took this to be a "sign of frugality", just in time for the holy month of Ramadan, a time of piety and fasting widely observed in the Muslim-majority country.

"Our humble Tun Mahathir [doesn't need] no Gucci or Hermes, just Bata is good to go," said a Malaysian Instagram user who first shared a picture of the new prime minister in a post that swiftly went viral. Tun is a Malay term of respect.

image source, EPA
image captionDr Mahathir wonders how he became an unlikely fashion icon, perhaps

Bata, a low-cost Swiss brand popular among schoolchildren in Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore, cashed in on the social media hype and quickly claimed Dr Mahathir's sandals as their own in this Instagram post.

No surprises that the shoes have now sold out online.

As the BBC's South East Asian correspondent Jonathan Head points out, there was plenty of corruption and mismanagement during Mr Mahathir's first stint as prime minister, back in the 1980s and 1990s.

So being photographed in $4 sandals was surely no accident, he says.

After a dramatic week, it looks like Mr Mahathir - a wily politician - is now writing the script of Malaysian politics, he says, and painting his ousted predecessor as the villain.

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