By Tom Westbrook
KUALALUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysians have avidly watched the public humiliation of former leader Najib Razak and his wife, as police hunting evidence of graft loaded five trucks with luxury items, including dozens of Birkin handbags, some costing as much as a sportscar.
Tens of thousands of people logged onto Facebook watched as journalists live-streamed the 3 am raid on Friday at an apartment in a fancy condominium, just one of several locations linked to the Najib family that were searched.
Millions more watched, as news channels aired the footage on a loop through the following day.
During his near ten years in power, Najib stamped out political dissent, and stifled criticism in the media.
But since Najib’s defeat in the May 9 election to 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, his mentor-turned-foe, and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, media coverage of his downfall has been remorseless.
“All of the secrets are coming out already,” said Sara Rashid, serving at Optimist Coffee, a busy downtown cafe in Kuala Lumpur. A blackboard listing specials included “freedom of expression”.
“I think now we have got this opportunity to witness everything, we don’t want to miss the chance,” she said.
The Hermes-branded boxes for the Birkins were plainly seen, loaded in to shopping trolleys as they were carted away, but police said that besides the bags, which can cost as much as three times the prime minister’s annual salary of $120,000, they brought out cash, watches and jewels.
“The number of jewellery is rather big,” policeman Amar Singh, director of commercial crime investigations, told reporters outside.
Uploaded to social media, his comments quickly gathered more than 80,000 views online.
The new government has made a priority of finding out how billions of dollars went missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fund set up by Najib. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing at 1MDB, and prior to election the mainstream media had towed the official line.
Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, who has become a focal point for public criticism for flaunting her wealth, took issue with the way in which the cameras filmed the police raid.
In a statement issued through her lawyers on Saturday she said the “media hailstorm” was “a seemingly targeted vilification of our family to provoke public anger,” and railed against the publication of details of items taken from her home.
“Enforcement agencies should not be feeding social media trolls,” she said.
Wags online had already posted memes comparing policeman Singh to the superhero Iron Man, and captioning his remarks with “CASH IS NO LONGERKING, THESINGH IS KINGNOW.” It was mostly one-way traffic on Twitter.
“YA ALLAHHHNAJIBROSMAH. How do you sleep at nights!! HOW DO YOUEVENLIVETHISLIFE!!!!” lawyer Nurainie Haziqah wrote on Twitter.
During the ten days since he lost power, Najib and his wife have been barred from leaving the country, his home has been searched by police and anti-corruption investigators have said they will meet him next week.
Najib, whose late father was Malaysia’s second prime minister, has also quit as head of the United Malays National Organisation, the party that, until now, had headed every multi-ethnic coalition to rule Malaysia for the past six decades.
Having given little space to the opposition during the election campaign, mainstream media, including state news agency Bernama and the major newspapers New Straits Times and the Star, have reported the drama blow-by-blow.
Malaysiakini, an independent news portal that did publish articles critical of the government, said it has recorded a “major increase in viewership” with more than 222 million likes, shares and comments on its Facebook page.
“Safe to assume it’s our best month ever,” chief executive Premesh Chandran told Reuters in an email.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ros Russell)