Khazanah, EPF on MAHB privatisation and future benefits

Datuk Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir (left) and Ahmad Zulqarnain Onn. -filepic

KUALA LUMPUR: The recent debates and opinions surrounding the privatisation of Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) have captured significant public and industry attention.

At the forefront of this initiative is the Gateway Development Alliance (GDA), a consortium which aims to leverage its collective expertise to enhance the nation’s airport infrastructure, ensuring long-term sustainable growth and improved services for passengers and airlines alike.

As a key player in Malaysia’s airport network, MAHB's potential improvements under the consortium’s guidance promise substantial benefits. By prioritising maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, and enhanced connectivity, the GDA envisions a future where passengers will enjoy a superior travel experience and a wider range of destinations.

Such enhancements are expected to boost passenger traffic and have a significant positive impact on Malaysia’s people and economy.

To shed more light on the deal, we spoke with Khazanah Nasional managing director Datuk Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir and Employees Provident Fund (EPF) chief executive officer Ahmad Zulqarnain Onn, as the two major Malaysian entities will own a 70% stake in GDA.

Through their perspectives, we aim to uncover how this venture is poised to benefit not just MAHB, but also the nation.

The Need for Change

1. Can you explain why the need to do this deal and why now?

Amirul Feisal: Malaysia has the potential to really boost its aviation connectivity, but currently, it’s not doing as well as it should. Before the pandemic hit, Malaysia’s inbound tourism growth in the past 10 years was only around 1.0% per annum, which was way behind our neighbours, who were growing at about 8.0% per year (this comparison excludes day-trippers).

While we are well-served for short-haul segments compared to our neighbours Singapore and Bangkok, our long-haul flights seem to be lagging. Last year, Kuala Lumpur only had 22 long-haul routes, whereas Singapore and Thailand had 40 and 55, respectively.

Our region is well positioned for long-term passenger growth; the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects passenger growth of 4.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the next 20 years.

However, we risk falling behind as other countries in the region have been investing aggressively to improve their airports. Regional peers have invested significantly larger amounts in the last five years (Thailand: RM6.6bil, Indonesia: RM12.0bil) than MAHB (RM1.4bil). There is an urgent need for MAHB to improve their services and invest to ensure that Malaysia too remains competitive as our regional peers are preparing for growth by investing in the gateways to their economic hubs. We have left it far way too long, and the country’s competitiveness is at stake.

We need to improve connectivity, one of the key focus areas for Khazanah’s Malaysia Strategy for 2024. There’s no doubt that airports are super important for our economy; their connectedness helps promote more business, tourism and cargo. We need our airports to be regionally competitive to support existing airlines' operations and attract more airlines. To do this, we need to invest.

Ahmad Zulqarnain: A consortium, backed by major investors and substantial funds, strengthened by the right skills and expertise, will help Malaysia compete in the region by supporting projects to improve our airports and improve the nation’s connectivity.

At the same time, this is an attractive long-term investment, given the stable nature of the infrastructure asset, which generates consistent cash flows and the expected continued growth in the number of the travelling public, which aligns with the objectives of financial investors such as EPF.

2. What is the rationale for taking MAHB private?

Amirul Feisal: By taking it private, we are streamlining the shareholding structure, which would make it easier for the four shareholders – Khazanah, EPF, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) – to align our strategy and work closely with the government, which continues to hold the golden share. Strategic decisions can be made more efficiently and timely, even long-term investment decisions. This will assist the senior leadership in improving the business’s competitive position in the marketplace.

Finding the Right Fit and Collective Expertise

3. Why aren’t Malaysian companies considered for the task instead of foreign entities?

Amirul Feisal: The industry is such that nearly all the airports are already operated by MAHB. So, the Malaysian airport expertise is already within MAHB, which is doing a commendable job. However, an international technical partner who has the expertise and the drive to get things right can then work with management to implement international best practices. This would allow MAHB to further improve service levels.

4. Why are you allowing foreigners to own Malaysia’s strategic asset and how will national interest be protected?

Amirul Feisal: There’s been talk going around that we are selling MAHB, but that’s just not true. In fact, Khazanah isn’t selling MAHB at all. We are actually planning to increase our stake from about 33% to 40%.

Ahmad Zulqarnain: Together, Khazanah and EPF will boost our collective shares in MAHB from around 41% to 70% after this offer. International investors like ADIA and GIP are stepping in to replace short-term investors with long-term capital investors effectively, considering that foreign shareholding is already at 27%.

This deal, in a way, brings our airports back firmly under Malaysian control once it’s delisted. Foreign shareholding in MAHB has gone up as high as 45% in 2018. Furthermore, Malaysian interests are well protected. The government will keep its special share and board representation in MAHB, and both the chairman and CEO will remain Malaysians.

5. Why was Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) chosen, and what is the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) role?

Amirul Feisal: This is a question that many out there are asking. Before I answer, please allow me to provide some context. Our consortium partners are ADIA and GIP, both of which formed a co-owned entity to join the consortium. Together, they will hold a 30 per cent partnership with Khazanah and EPF, meaning the Malaysian parties will have a 70% stake. Specifically, ADIA will have a 5% effective interest while GIP will have 25%.

ADIA and GIP bring a lot of strengths to the table.

With GIP, we went through a thorough review of potential technical partners, including top global airport operators. It is crucial that our partner has a strong track record of value creation, which goes beyond what current airport managers can achieve.

While the MAHB team has indeed done a fantastic job bringing in new airlines and improving services, there is always room to do better.

To my understanding, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Sydney, and London City Airport were operating at respectable levels even before GIP got involved. However, bringing in best practice airport management techniques have elevated the performance of these airports further.

Another key point is that the choice of partners also needs to align with our objectives. We approached GIP and have been in talks for a while now because they have what we need, to be the most suitable choice. Importantly, GIP, just like most of private equity funds, will eventually exit after creating value.

ADIA is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, adding significant financial muscle to our group. They have extensive experience with investing in and supporting the growth of airports, as they did with GIP at Gatwick Airport in the UK. Their involvement also shows that international investors have confidence in our country.

ADIA is excited about the opportunity to invest in MAHB, which it sees as being supported by the economic growth in the region. They share a strategy with the other consortium members that focuses on long- term value creation.

Ahmad Zulqarnain: When it comes to choosing who EPF works with, we always work with parties that have proven track records. We believe that GIP could bring innovative ideas and strategies to elevate the passenger experience.

This would include improvement in passenger flows, enhanced food and beverage offerings, and more efficient security and immigration controls. And GIP has successfully delivered all these.

With GIP’s expertise, we anticipate creating an unparalleled travel experience that meets the highest international standards.

Edinburgh Airport is an illustrative example. Since GIP took over in 2012, passenger numbers have jumped from 9.2 million to 14.4 million in 2023, and more importantly, the number of destinations have increased by 141 to 225. Compare that to Glasgow Airport, which has seen passenger traffic increasing from 7.2 million to only 7.4 million during the same period.

Its Sydney Airport saw decreased security wait times by more than 60% to 11 minutes. At Gatwick, GIP completed their train replacement (same model and track length as KLIA’s Aerotrain) within 10 months and increased passenger throughput from 220 to 550 passengers per hour. This allowed Gatwick to grow its passenger traffic by nine million more passengers since GIP took over, despite land constraints. This is key for the consortium because such expertise can make a significant impact to MAHB, especially since we’re competing with airports in Singapore, Bangkok, and Indonesia, each with its own strengths.

The announced offer price is above MAHB’s all-time high.

Addressing the Relationship

6. Who is BlackRock and what is GIP’s relationship with BlackRock?

Amirul Feisal: BlackRock is currently the largest fund manager in the world, with a staggering US$10.5tri (US$1=RM4.71) assets under management. Their investments span across a wide array of assets. A significant portion of BlackRock’s portfolio is dedicated to passive, index-linked investments, which means they hold shares in nearly all publicly listed companies globally – this includes tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google. BlackRock funds have interest in Bursa Malaysia stocks that are worth around RM20.5 bil and about RM6.9 bil in both Malaysian government and corporate bonds.

GIP, on the other hand, is an infrastructure fund. Essentially, they manage funds from various investors worldwide, much like other big names in the industry such as TPG, KKR, and Macquarie, to give a few examples.

Recently, BlackRock expressed interest in boosting its own infrastructure fund capabilities by seeking to acquire GIP, acknowledging GIP’s expertise in the field. However, to the best of my knowledge, their deal has yet to be concluded. Regarding the Gateway Development Alliance, we would like to clarify that our direct consortium partners are ADIA and GIP, not BlackRock.

7. How will the rakyat and Malaysia benefit from this deal?

Amirul Feisal: The consortium has plans to set MAHB up for long-term, sustainable growth. We are looking to focus on maintaining and upgrading airport infrastructure, boosting passenger service levels, and improving airline connectivity. This is all aimed at supporting an increase in passenger traffic and raising tourist numbers to come to Malaysia, which will have lasting positive impacts on the rakyat.

Ahmad Zulqarnain: For customers, airlines, and passengers, this means a more enjoyable travel experience and seamless operations. Think about having more retail and dining options and more direct destinations to travel to or connect through. Moreover, the financial benefits could be significant with potential returns from this investment.

Improving Overall Airport Operations, Employee and Customer Satisfaction

8. Will MAHB be going through rationalisation, including cost-cutting initiatives? How will this affect its employees?

Amirul Feisal: This transaction is about preparing MAHB for the next level, rather than cutting costs. Hence, the priorities are centred on passenger-centric initiatives, such as enhancing air connectivity and the overall passenger experience.

9. Can you ensure there will be no layoffs at MAHB and will GIP have management control in MAHB?

Amirul Feisal: We are dedicated to protecting the rights of MAHB’s current employees, and there are no plans for layoffs. As for the second part of your question, GIP won’t be directly appointing staff or secondees to manage MAHB. Instead, management will be jointly appointed by the consortium as a whole, and we will tap into GIP’s technical expertise when needed. Rest assured, the employment rights of MAHB’s existing employees are fully safeguarded, with no plans for layoffs. Staff would benefit from knowledge sharing with global experts.

Amirul Feisal and Ahmad Zulqarnain acknowledge that as MAHB embarks on this journey under the backing of the GDA, the stakes are undeniably high, but so are the potential rewards.

The strategic focus on enhancing infrastructure, improving connectivity, and delivering superior passenger experiences aligns with a broader vision of national growth and prosperity. The proposed privatisation of MAHB represents more than just making a change; it symbolises a key step towards realising a modernised, efficient, and globally competitive airport network. The urgency to act now reflects the need not to fall behind the rest of the region.

As the nation watches closely, the collaborative efforts of the consortium and its stakeholders promise to pave the way for a brighter, more connected future for Malaysia’s aviation sector. With the groundwork laid and strategic plans in motion, the next chapter for MAHB and the entire Malaysian aviation industry holds great promise, fueled by a shared vision of excellence and innovation. – Bernama

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