KUALA LUMPUR: AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes on Sunday (May 13) apologised for having appeared to back Najib Razak and Barisan Nasional (BN) in the run-up to the May 9 election, saying that he had "buckled" under pressure from the previous administration.
Fernandes had appeared in a video, which was posted on Free Malaysia Today’s YouTube page on May 6, where he credited the government for AirAsia's success. In it, he also said: "I believe the Prime Minister put the people first and allowed AirAsia to grow despite opposition from all over the place."
Then on May 7, Najib posted pictures of himself boarding an AirAsia aircraft from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur. The plane sported the livery "Hebatkan Negaraku" (Make My Country Greater), which was BN's campaign slogan.
In a seven-minute video posted on Facebook on Sunday, Fernandes apologised for his actions, saying he thought the moves "would appease the government", which he said had been pressurising him over AirAsia's decision to provide extra flights for Malaysians abroad to fly back home to vote.
“Foolishly I thought by doing the video - which I felt was fairly neutral and factual - and the plane from Kota Kinabalu would appease the government and protect the jobs of allstars (AirAsia staff) and more importantly, the very essence of allowing more than 80 million people to fly every year with low fares," he said.
"Under the intense pressure, I buckled. It wasn’t right, I'll forever regret it." Fernandes said.
"I apologise once again for the pain and the hurt I caused."
AirAsia had announced 120 extra flights at lower than usual prices especially for the election, which Fernandes said would have carried 26,000 people home to vote.
"I knew it wouldn't be popular with the government, but I felt as an airline we had to serve the people," he said.
"Within 24 hours, we were summoned by the Malaysian Aviation Commission and told to cancel all those flights."
Fernandes said that was not the first time he had fought against the government. He said that he had previously been asked to remove former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, who is chairman of AirAsia X, for speaking out against the previous administration.
Many netizens had criticised Fernandes for what they saw as his open endorsement of BN and Najib.
Photos onboard the aircraft showed the cabin crew wearing blue uniforms (BN's colour) instead of their signature red.
RAFIDAH AZIZ 'REVEALS FACTS' BEHIND FERNANDES' 'BAD JUDGMENT'
Later in the evening, AirAsia X chairman Rafidah in a Facebook post acknowledged that Fernandes had made a "bad judgment" when he tried to "please and placate" Najib and the previous administration.
Rafidah revealed that Fernandes and Kamarudin Meranin, the chairman of AirAsia, had a meeting with her to convey the "message from Najib's operatives", which was to stop "attacking" the then prime minister.
"I am chairperson of AAX (AirAsia X). The insinuation was if I persisted, then there will be 'consequences'."
She told both men that "if they were feeling too much pressure", she would resign. However, the duo "responded with a big no", said Rafidah.
"'We love you', those were Tony's words. I was touched. I even said 'never mind, the Almighty will give them the retribution'."
"However, not known to me, Tony got the ultimate 'treatment' for his failure to 'make me resign’," said Rafidah.
She added that Fernandes did not tell her about his plan to make the video, or that he intended to ferry Najib in a BN-themed plane.
"He knew I would veto it," said Rafidah, noting that Fernandes "was practically publicly crucified" for his actions.
"Tony just tried to please and placate. His 'mistake' was not telling me. He got a private whacking from me already for that. Nothing personal, only for that error in judgment or, as I told him, (for) his 'stupidity'."
She said that Fernandes "did not have to go to that extent to placate" the previous government. However, he did it because he needed to stop the administration from "tightening further the screws on where it would hurt most - AirAsia and AAX".
Rafidah said she was now able to "reveal" the facts because Pakatan Harapan had already been voted in as the new government.
"I want to express my deepest appreciation to Tony and the team as well, for taking all the terrible punches - on my behalf," she added.
She also called upon the public to "reset the AirAsia support button" and "put the upsets triggered by the past government way behind us".