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Handbags between Singapore and Malaysia

It is an unfortunate inevitability of modern life that when a woman who runs a sovereign wealth fund goes to the White House, she attracts headlines for her choice of handbag. But it takes a uniquely southeast Asian twist to turn this into a political vendetta.

Handbag Shoulder-Birkin-350

When Ho Ching, CEO and executive director of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s S$242 billion sovereign wealth fund, visited Washington DC in August, she did so, not in her Temasek capacity, but as Singapore’s first lady, with her husband, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Stories about Ho focused on the fact that she turned up with a S$15 ($11) clutch handbag designed by an autistic 19-year-old Singaporean student.

That’s normally where the ever-facile news cycle might have left it, were it not for the unique paranoia of Malaysia, whose first lady Rosmah Mansor, wife of the 1MDB-embattled prime minister Najib Razak, is known for her love of Hermès Birkin handbags. She has been photographed with at least nine of then, some estimated to be worth as much as $50,000 apiece. (Najib’s salary, incidentally, is RM22,826.65 a month, or $67,723 a year.)

So, in some quarters in Malaysia, Ho’s choice of bag is seen as a deliberate slight against the gauche bling of her opposite number (in first lady terms) across the causeway to the north. Ho, presumably, has bigger things to worry about, such as the 9.02% one-year loss Temasek made in the year to March 31.

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