Taking something little and turning it into an airline as big as any other — that is the achievement Tan Sri Aziz Abdul Rahman is most proud of.
Today, Tan Sri Aziz Abdul Rahman is 81 years old and still a lawyer.
He’s lived in the same bungalow in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur for five decades. It’s a homely affair, decorated with warm tones, plush couches and timber flooring. Outside, a Malaysian flag flaps lightly in the breeze.
When he retired at 58, he had options: live a quiet life or do what he was originally trained to do, law.
He had experience, in administrative law (two intense years drafting laws under the National Operations Council), corporate (two decades running a company) and aviation law (one of the few specialists in this country).
It seemed silly to let it all go to waste, so he chose the latter. You can still see him in court today, clad in robes. At 81, he may be one of the oldest lawyers around.
No, actually, that’s not true. Aziz corrects me – the other day he met someone who was 85. They joked about whether they’d still be showing up at court if they make it to their 100th birthdays.
He walks me through his house and we take a seat on the set of couches looking out onto the veranda. The walls around us are covered in picture frames of smiling family members; four children and six grandchildren.
The remaining wall space is populated by art. Every item seems to represent stages of a life lived, but none more so than the dusty object sitting atop a cabinet tucked away in the room corner.
We climb a chair to retrieve it: A 40-year old replica of a Boeing 707. About the width of my forearm, the model features a red stripe down the sides of its white body and a wau on its rudder: “To represent controlled flight,” he says.
Printed across the side in small caps are the words “Malaysian Airline System”. It’s in red, the colour before MAS was rebranded to its trademark blue and red.
Though it’s been 20 years since he returned to law, and his life today is as busy as it ever was (he sits on the advisory committees for a variety of NGOs), the proudest achievement of his life was helping to turn MAS from something very small, into a global, award-winning, international airline.
When he retired as managing director and CEO in 1991, he left the company with a cash reserve of RM5bil.
It feels pointless asking about how he feels about the airline’s latest ups and downs – over the last two decades it’s undergone wild swings in profitability, three business turnaround plans, and a string of different CEOs.
The unresolved disappearance of Flight MH370, and the recent crash of Flight MH17 which was carrying 295 passengers on board, all of whom died, are two of the most recent tragedies that have left a black mark on its history.
One thing Aziz will say, is that one of the greatest challenges in running an airline, is staying on top of things.
The context of aviation has evolved – competition comes not just from budget airlines, but government-subsidised Middle-Eastern carriers flying similar routes, who employ Malaysian pilots and stewards, and pay competitive salaries in US dollars.
How MAS will move on from the current situation is anyone’s guess. But whatever happens, MAS will always hold an air of nostalgia for him.
Aziz was eight when the Japanese came through Kota Baru in 1941. The war experience shaped him, but it wasn’t all bad.
Japanese school taught him some valuable lessons – ingraining a practical attitude which he carried forward into adulthood.
He remembers the one-hour drills every morning, singing the Japanese national anthem Kimi Ga Yo, classes in arithmetic, digging up the football field with cangkul to plant tapioca: “We could take the tapioca home if we wanted.”
They taught him self sufficiency, he says. And their school trips to rural villages taught him “what life is”. Coming from the town, going to rural areas exposed Aziz to poverty and toil.
“I’ll always remember that experience, what it means (for people) going through the hard life. When you have everything, there are many who have nothing.”
Like most children, he didn’t know what he wanted to be. It was only as Aziz got older that ideas and ideals began forming.
It started with a visit to the courts on a school trip in Kota Baru. By then, the Japanese had surrendered and Malaya had returned to British governance.
Later, when doing his Post-School Certificate at Victoria Secondary he once again visited the courts, this time in Singapore. He remembers the huge disparity in economic development between the two states.
He wasn’t sure how he would one day contribute to the development of his home, just that he wanted to. Law seemed like a good place to start.
It was exciting, seeing the barristers in their robes and bibs, walking around with a sense of importance.
But law was a difficult field to get into – there were no schools in Malaya, you had to go to Britain.
The son of a teacher, Aziz had always been a good student. His grades got him a government scholarship to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London.
And so he embarked on his career. Up until 1969, he was just like any other young chap carving a career in the Judicial and Legal Service.
He’d served as a magistrate and assistant district officer, his end goal being to climb the ladder – and one day become a judge. But law wasn’t to be his greatest service to this country.
In 1971, Aziz received a phone call from Tun Abdul Razak Hussein; Razak had officially taken over the prime ministership from Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Aziz was asked to serve as company secretary and director of Legal Affairs in what was to be Malaysia’s new national airline carrier.
It was time to focus on creating a robust economy, helping Malaysia stand out amongst the emerging tiger economies of South-East Asia. For this, good transportation was crucial.
At the time Singapore dominated the region as a transportation hub, but all its international flights were made on planes jointly owned by both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments.
Malaysia was getting the short end of the stick for reasons that couldn’t be helped. It was just the way things were set up: the formation of the airline company predated the split of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.
(Originally known as Malayan Airways in 1947, it was renamed Malaysian Airways after Merdeka, and then Malaysia-Singapore Airline in 1965.)
After the separation, things got awkward. Singapore was in a better position to take advantage of the company’s assets.
All the international air services agreements were based on routes to Singapore. Malaysia simply didn’t have the right infrastructure to make use of the company’s Boeing 707s and Boeing 737s.
It lacked trained personnel, engineering facilities, catering and airport services; diverting company assets to Malaysia didn’t make business sense.
At the time, the only flights available in Malaysia were domestic and used Fokker F27 Friendships – a short range turboprop airliner which fit about 44 passengers with a flight crew of two, prone to turbulence and not altogether very comfortable.
To top things off, flights to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak had to be routed through Singapore. The solution seemed obvious – two countries, two airlines.
Razak went to task orchestrating the dissolution of Malaysia-Singapore Airline, known to many simply as MSA. In its place would spring two new companies – Singapore Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines System.
The goal was to start from scratch, buying new planes, negotiating new routes and creating a new, national airline. First, domestic services would be updated, direct flights would be established between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak.
Then, the airline would expand regionally, linking up Kuala Lumpur with other important business hubs such as Bangkok and Jakarta.
And then, it would go global. But first, there were legal knots to untangle, and for that they needed a legal man, and Aziz dutifully obliged.