On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Priority is to get MAS soaring again

Singapore Airlines, it pointed out, made an operating profit of US$153mil in the last quarter despite rising fuel costs. The SIA managers were told the airline enjoyed no special protection and had to sink or swim in a highly competitive market.

More pertinent, the article stated, its staff, management and crew were drawn from all over the world and "what was Singaporean about it was the way the airline was managed".

It would not be accurate for anyone to compare Malaysia Airlines with SIA. SIA has no unprofitable routes to worry about in the name of national service and can focus its attention on foreign routes.

Neither does SIA bother about flying to unpopular destinations in South America and Africa to promote South-South cooperation. In fact, Singapore does not have that many embassies in developing countries.

MAS executives are also trying to understand why a decision was made to fly to Ipoh, which is less than two hours away by road. The drive from Kuala Lumpur to the KL International Airport alone would probably take at least 40 minutes.

MAS became national news recently for the wrong reasons when it posted a net loss of RM280mil and the man who had to face the firing squad, to put it figuratively, was its managing director Datuk Ahmad Fuaad Dahlan.

It has been reported that while  fuel costs were up almost RM1bil, the other contributing factors were in-flight meals (up RM35mil) and consultancy fees (RM31mil).

Instead of understanding the flaws behind MAS and to rectify them, we have now gone on to debate whether a foreigner should be allowed to head the national carrier.

Umno Youth head Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the appointment of a foreigner to lead the nationally-owned company could be likened to allowing Malaysia to be re-colonised, albeit in a new manner.

He urged Malaysians not to look at such an appointment "purely from the commercial aspect but (we) should look at it in the bigger agenda, that is the Malay agenda".

Hishammuddin said MAS had to give reasons why Malays or Malaysians were not qualified, adding that present-day imperialism was perpetrated not only through the use of weapons but also through the mind, culture and economy.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad responded, in a cynical way, saying "perhaps all the national companies should be allowed to be run by foreigners. Then I think we should have a different definition of a national."

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he did not think Malaysians were incapable of heading MAS, saying he would leave the decision to MAS.

Malaysians would probably have reasons to be wary of a foreigner but more important is that MAS must not be allowed to continue bleeding. It makes no sense if a Malaysian is incapable of running the airline effectively, competitively and with integrity.

The priority for MAS now is to find a capable CEO who can help make the airline profitable again. The nationality, race or gender should not be an issue.

Numerous companies including car makers are being managed by foreigners. The Japanese, who have a hard reputation against foreigners, have even accepted a foreigner to run Nissan.

At home, we openly accept foreigners to manage our hotels because we have grown accustomed to it. Malaysians own these hotels but foreigners manage them because they are good, it's as simple as that.

So if a foreigner CEO can do the job, so be it. Likewise, if a non-Malay can help turn a debt-laden government-linked company around, there is no reason why the CEO must be a Malay.

But even the most qualified CEO, regardless of his nationality, race or gender won't be able to do the job if he is not left alone to work on it. Political interference is enough to kill any enthusiasm, let alone ambitious plans.

MAS has a bad reputation of being over-staffed and no CEO has been brave enough to trim it down, fearing a labour backlash. But the fact is that it is bloated and the management has to do something about it.

That is not all. Newcomer Air Asia recently trumpeted its performance with the announcement that it had achieved a net profit of RM111.8mil for its last financial year "despite battling spiralling jet fuel prices, SARS, bird flu and other adverse circumstances".

But Malaysians love our national airline. Even as we grumble about its services, deep in our hearts, we know that it is a great airline and anyone who has flown on European airlines can tell the difference.

We long for smiles from our MAS stewardesses and the hot nasi lemak after weeks overseas. We know we can only get these from MAS and certainly it has brand loyalty.

MAS should just get its act together and the last thing it should worry about is Air Asia. As its media-savvy CEO Datuk Tony Fernandes told a forum recently, "bus companies should be more worried about Air Asia than MAS" with its low fares.

Let us be realistic – nationalism has no meaning if we remain losers and are incapable of competing effectively in the global market.