Voices ‘08: I believe in Malaysia, says Tony
What do Malaysians think about Malaysia? What are the experiences that shape our feelings for the country? Over the next few weeks, we will hear from different Malaysians as they share with us their thoughts and ideas about Malaysia in this series called Voices. Not coincidentally, this is also the theme for the NST’s year-end pullout. ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD gets the ball rolling by talking to Datuk Tony Fernandes who is doing everything he can to sell Brand Malaysia to Malaysians and the rest of the world.
Q: What has the year been like?
A: It’s been a phenomenal year. Our profits have been great, we won airline of the year (Airline Of The Year 2007 award by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation), the first time a Malaysian company has done that, beating Emirates, Singapore Airlines and others. I suppose getting the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur routes represents a feather in our cap. We also launched AirAsia X, and it’s great to be in partnership with (Sir) Richard Branson, who is an icon himself.
One accomplishment I’m really proud of is that wherever I go we’re always referred to as Malaysia AirAsia, or Malaysia’s AirAsia. If I walk around in KL people know me but in London, very few do. But that number is growing, and that shows that our brand is becoming more significant.
Q: What are the major lessons?
A: Maybe, patience. It has its virtue sometimes, but we are a company in a rush. Malaysia Airlines is celebrating its 60th year, and we are only celebrating our sixth year, but we’re still proud to see what we’ve been able to achieve. It shows what Malaysia and Malaysians can do if we put our minds to it.
Q: What were the low points? And how did you overcome them?
A: I’m disappointed that another uneven surface has been opened, that Firefly can operate from Subang and we can’t. I pray for the day that we can have a level playing field with Malaysia Airlines. I feel that we could do many more things together, and I feel that as Malaysian companies, competition is good and we should compete, and the real competition is out there. And we should do more together.
Q: You often lament about an uneven playing field between your private company and the government-linked MAS. Is this a problem in general for other private companies in the country?
A: Sometimes the problem of a private company versus a GLC is we just don’t get the airtime the GLC gets with the political leadership. There’s no one to blame for this. I have confidence in the government but it is frustrating. I think we could be twice the size we are now.
Q: You have travelled widely, lived and worked abroad, yet you chose to come back to Malaysia. Why?
A: I came back, and I’m a big advocate (of returning). When I went to a UKEC (United Kingdom and Eire Council for Malaysian Students) programme and gave speeches at universities in England, I advocated that people should come home.
One, it’s home. I don’t care what anyone says. There is only one home. Anywhere else is adopted. And no one can take that from me. I have a blue IC and a red passport. And I’m proud of it, even though I can live anywhere in the world, and most places would welcome me.
Two, I’m very nationalistic. From a young age, my mother used to be so pro-Singapore Airlines and anti-MAS, and now, funny how life has changed – I always argue with her about MAS being the best. In the last Olympics I watched every single Malaysian perform. If I support the All Blacks in rugby, or the West Indies or India in cricket, it’s not my country.
Third, I was born here; I received a good education because my parents did well in Malaysia, and so I felt it was my responsibility to come back. It’s not perfect, Malaysia. But where is perfect?
I’m the sort of person who doesn’t believe in just sitting back and complaining. Come back and make a difference. Now especially, more and more have this perception that, oh, there must be someone behind Tony Fernandes. I’ve heard so many different names. The most famous being Ananda Krishnan, Tan Sri Azman Hashim, (Tan Sri) Vincent Tan, (Datuk) Mokhzani Mahathir, Khairy Jamaluddin, I mean you name it. But we are the best advertisement that anything is possible in Malaysia.
Q: Was there any point in the early years when you returned that you felt you should have stayed away?
A: No, never. I’ve always loved this place and our people. We’re unique. James Ingram (American soul musician) — I brought him down when I was in Warner Music — once said to me the American government should visit here. Because he couldn’t get over how all the races here get together, the intermarriage, the people going out together. Yeah, we have our racial problems, but we generally get on with each other.
I know I’ve persuaded many people to come back. I know that I have been involved in bringing many who migrated abroad to come back. And I don’t think for one minute they have regretted it.
Q: Who are your Malaysian heroes, the people who inspire you?
A: There are so many. I always talk about “Mr IOI” (Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, founder of the IOI Group). I love his story of how he started, selling ice cream on a bicycle, and now he’s owner of one of the biggest oleo-chemical companies. And you know what I love about him? I went to one of his estates, and I noticed his passion. He’s obviously now a very, very rich guy, but he still enjoys going out there and showing me seeds. I mean, to me, a seed is just a seed, but his passion! So that guy really stands out for me.
Tan Sri Naza (Tan Sri S.M. Nasimuddin S.M. Amin, Naza Group chairman and chief executive officer) is another guy I really like. He never ages and is always pushing to be the best, and Tan Sri G. Gnanalingam (Westports Malaysia Sdn Bhd chairman), too. He started in one industry, got a chance in another. All of them seized their chances.
And look at what Nazir Razak (Datuk Mohamed Nazir Razak, group chief executive, CIMB) has done. Yeah, he was born with a silver spoon. He’s my friend. He wasn’t my friend three years ago — I thought he was arrogant. I didn’t give CIMB our IPO. But I’m proud of what he’s done and to be associated with him now. He’s gone out there and put CIMB on the map of banking in the world. He goes out there and he brands. I mean, come on, CIMB is now a household name.
Q: What’s the common trait of the people who inspire you?
A: Most of them managed to come up from nowhere and just do something. They are people whom, given a chance, will do much more, and who succeed despite adversity. I love it, I love seeing it.
Q: Every now and then, something happens that unites all Malaysians and there is an overwhelming “proud to be Malaysian feeling”. Recent examples are usually sports-related, like when Nicol David became the World No 1 in women’s squash. Do you think we as Malaysians have lost that feeling?
A: Do I think Malaysians feel this less? No, but I think Malaysians need icons. When Zainal Abidin and Sheila Majid gained success as music artistes, and even Siti Nurhaliza, they’re about the only artistes able to ignite that Malaysian pride. You’ll see all the races supporting them, able to transcend their differences.
So we do want a Malaysian “brand”. I’m proud of being part of it. We don’t sell it enough — this Bangsa Malaysia we talk about. I hope for the next generation, well, it’s my dream anyway, that we don’t put ourselves down as Chinese, Indian, Malay, but as Malaysian. And I hope there’s a Barisan Nasional that I can join. I think our “brand” is our biggest selling point, because there’s no country in Asia quite like us.
Q: How do you think we can get the youth of Malaysia to be proud of our country?
A: What I tell them is, one, I say, look at AirAsia. We were just three guys from the music industry with not a lot of money, no experience, no political connections — zero. Datuk Pahamin Rajab was the only guy with connections, and with due respect to him, he’s not the person with the strongest political connections around, though he is respected.
But we’ve been able to build an airline and compete with Malaysia Airlines and have slowly been able to close the uneven playing field. No one has an answer to explain that away! So who says you can’t do anything?
Where else in Asean can this (AirAsia) happen? In the aviation industry, nowhere. Singapore hasn’t managed to do it. And in Singapore it’s a function of the government. Tiger Air is owned by Temasek and Singapore Airlines.
So no one can give me an answer and say Malaysia is not fair. No one can say that no one gets equal opportunities. I did. I am living proof that we can. That’s what I tell the students, like those in the UK. I said you live in a wonderful country, don’t believe what you hear, it’s up to you, because Malaysians are their own worst enemy.
But I don’t think anyone in any country would have been able to achieve what we have, and it’s because of our government, and it’s because of the fairly level playing field. Of course, I want it completely level, who wouldn’t? But in six years, we’ve achieved a lot, and we owe a lot of it to the government.
Q: What’s your wish for 2008 — for AirAsia, and also your hopes as a Malaysian?
A: I hope the country can spur more private investors. I hope there can be more encouragement given, and that it’s not rhetoric. I hope more investment can be put in education, much more emphasis on education.
You asked is it just sports that bring us together. No. It can be music, movies, and companies. When we have something to be proud about, that brings us together. So what’s lacking in education? More emphasis on sports and the arts.
From the sports field, you get your first eradication of colour. No one can say “pass the ball to him — he’s an Indian winger, or a Chinese or Malay”. It’s from there you first learn teamwork and working together.
Now, we’re just memorising 15,000 books to get 15As. How sad it is to see a girl committing suicide because she didn’t get it. Education is not about getting 15As, which I didn’t come close to getting.
Education is also about sports, interaction, about learning how to work as a team, about leadership. And we do not put enough emphasis on sports.
You can put all the money into FAM, but where did the Soh Chin Auns and Arumugams and all those guys come from? Schools, and playing football in the padang. Where are the padang nowadays?
Two, is art, drama and music. That’s where you gain a sharing of culture and breaking down the invisible barriers.
Q: Do you face problems getting people with the right qualities when you recruit?
A: Yeah, I do. We’re not getting enough people who can think out of the box. Because you don’t have creativity in schools anymore. Like in art and drama, which is where you learn to express yourself. So, getting enough creative thinkers is a problem.
Q: On occasion though we do see bits and pieces of a Malaysia united and able to transcend ethnic barriers.
A: It’s coming, it was there, we lost it, and now I think the government’s aim is to promote it. I don’t believe that anyone is marginalised. I believe that ultimately we marginalise ourselves.
Malaysians are their own worst enemies. They just sit there and say, “No, it can’t be done,” even before they try. My philosophy is, try and, if you fail, try again. Because I don’t want to reach 55 and say “I should have done this”. But my dream for the future is my belief — I really believe in Malaysia as a Malaysian.
Take the AirAsia Academy. It’s a microcosm of what I’d like to see in Malaysian schools. I don’t think any pilot training academy is like ours. We have lots of social functions, we get the crew and pilots and engineers to do concert productions, we involve ourselves in sports.
Why do I do that? Because I have a bigger problem than just Malaysia. I have Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. And they all have different cultures and they all want to do their own thing.
I bring them all to the academy, I don’t care if you’re from Cambodia or whatever, you train in one place. It’s in that one place that we mould one culture.
Q: Would you please share with us what you think is a quintessential Malaysian experience?
A: Two things come to mind. One is food. If you want to see one thing that unifies our country it’s food. Whether it’s a mamak stall or Malay stall, everyone knows everything about all our good food regardless of race.
The other quintessential experience I find peculiar to our country is how we criticise our sportsmen.
Whether you’re Indian, Chinese, Malay, Punjabi, when you sit in the audience at Bukit Jalil and our team is playing badly, the insults are all the same!
That’s the other thing I love about Malaysia. We always know how to do it better!
But anyone can try to argue with me about Malaysia not being a great place and I’d tear them apart. I really would, because I believe in Malaysia.
source: the new straits times