Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes Apologizes For (Former) Malaysian Government Propaganda Flight

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Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes has issued an apology video for his decision to allow an Air Asia aircraft to be outfitted for a propaganda flight of the recently toppled Malaysian government during the election campaign.

Fernandes was apparently in hot water with the ruling party due to his Air Asia X chairwoman being supportive of the opposition and then adding additional flights to help Malaysians who wanted to fly to their hometowns in order to cast a vote in the General Election (to the dismay of the government).

Based on accounts and media reports the Air Asia boss was then cornered to give in to demands of the government to help during their own election campaign which he eventually agreed to in order to appease them and not fear retribution.

One has to consider that the former governing party Barisan Nasional has been in power ever since Malaysia’s independence and the opposition winning the election was a very long shot to say the least. Fernandes would have fought an uphill (and futile) battle would he have refused to cooperate in some way, something that would have likely resulted in repercussions towards himself and the company.

You can access the video of Star TV here:

More details of what exactly transpired leading up to this situation can be found in this article of The Business Times.

Mr Fernandes said he came under pressure from Mr Najib’s government before the May 9 vote, causing him to issue a video enthusiastically crediting its policies for the success of the homegrown low-cost carrier. But the Barisan Nasional coalition suffered a humiliating defeat on Wednesday at the hands of an opposition alliance led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92. …

Mr Fernandes was strongly criticised online for the stunt endorsing Mr Najib, who has been linked to a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving Malaysian state fund 1MDB. A photo showing Mr Fernandes with Mr Najib on board an AirAsia plane was widely circulated during the election campaign. That plane was painted in the blue colours of Mr Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition. Mr Fernandes even changed the uniforms of AirAsia flight attendants from red to blue during that trip. …

Mr Fernandes apologised for his “grave error of judgement”. “I’m sorry for what has gone on. I buckled at a crucial moment in our history,” he said. He added that he had been under “tremendous” pressure from the then-government to sack popular former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, who is on the board of AirAsia’s long-haul budget arm AirAsia X, because she was campaigning for the opposition.

In fact Malaysia’s opposition manages to secure a stunning victory last week after a firm grip on power over five decades so Fernandes could have no indication that there would be an upcoming regime change. Given the history of what happens to members of the opposition in Malaysia (nobody is really ‘too big to jail’) it was probably a wise decision to give in a little and allow himself and the brand to be instrumentalized as a campaign tool or at least a small piece of the puzzle.

Conclusion

As Fernandes says in the video, in such an environment you always have to support the government of the day. Air Asia is a company with 17,000+ employees and of course depends as any other carrier on the government approvals for any and all operations. It’s very easy for a regulator to make the daily business of an airline hell if that’s the intention.

Even though the CEO now expresses regret for the situation and his actions to cave in to the demands of the government for propaganda, I guess it’s very difficult to handle this matter in the media. On one hand he Fernandes has a proven track record that he was fair from the beginning to the new government but he can’t afford to offend key people in the country who will likely continue to be influential (some, others will head to jail). He’s a straight shooter nevertheless.

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