The head of AirAsia, Malaysia’s largest airline, has apologized for aggressively backing former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was ousted in a surprise upset in last week’s elections, saying he “buckled” at a crucial moment in the country’s history.
Tony Fernandes, who founded the Kuala Lumpur-based low-cost airline in 1993, appeared in a Facebook video to address “my fellow Malaysians.”
“Sometimes we need to stand up and be counted,” Fernandes, one of the region’s best-known business tycoons, said.
“Today is one of them. I’m sorry,” he said. “I buckled at a crucial moment in our history.”
“It wasn’t right and I will forever regret it,” he said, adding that it was “a grave error in judgement.”
He said he was pressured by the ruling party to support the prime minister, a fact confirmed by the company’s chairperson, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.
Rafidah said Fernandes showed “bad judgement” when he tried to “please and placate” the previous administration.
Fernandes acknowledged that he works in a “highly regulated industry” but left unsaid that to navigate those regulations he must maintain close relations with whomever heads the government.
AirAsia’s shares fell 10 percent on Monday following Fernandes’ statement.
His support of Najib, ousted by 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad — who ruled Malaysia for 22 years and returns to power after a 15-year hiatus — went much further than a simple endorsement and many Malaysians called him out for his blatant partisanship.
In the run up to the election, AirAsia even had one of its planes repainted with Najib’s campaign slogan and the colors of the ruling party.
Fernandes said he also felt pressure because AirAsia had added more than 100 additional flights so that Malaysians could return to their home provinces to vote. Fernandes said the Malaysian Aviation Commission called him and ordered the flights to be cancelled, presumably to suppress turnout. The MAC said in a statement quoted by Reuters that it would investigate the claims.