April 29, 2016
More on the MAS-Mueller Story
by Mariam Mokhtar
MAS in its Glory Days under Saw Huat Lye and Abdul Aziz Rahman
Last February, Malaysian Airlines Berhad (MAB) finally made a profit after years of being in the red. Two months later, Christoph Mueller, the company’s first non- Malaysian CEO, announced that he would leave in September 2016, well before the end of his contract.
What prompted his decision? Why leave after making such brilliant progress? Did anyone believe him when he said he was leaving because of “changing personal circumstances”? Let’s see if we can find a reason for Mueller’s decision.
In 1994, former PM Mahathir Mohamad gave control of the successful national carrier, then known as MAS, to his crony, Tajuddin Ramli. But instead of taking good care of the golden goose, Tajuddin and successive chairmen strangled the company.
Making Tajuddin MAS’ executive chairman and selling the company to him was part of Mahathir’s bumiputera corporate advancement project.
Mahathir should have instead adopted his Singapore counterpart Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to running an airline. In 1972, seven years after Malaysia and Singapore split, the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines had to be disbanded. On the eve of the formation of Singapore Airlines, Lee told the workers’ union that his government would have no compunction in closing the company down if it did not return a profit.
Mahathir, Najib and MAS Advisor Badawi
Now that MAB is back in the black, we fear that the government and its cronies will start to bleed it again until, perhaps, it’s time for another foreigner to come to its rescue. There are Malaysians capable of doing the job, but only a foreigner can wield the stick without inviting too much scrutiny. After all, MAB has political appointees on its board.
Mueller’s role is to act as a foreign advisor. He also gives the MAB board a semblance of respectability.When Mueller first arrived at MAS, he allegedly asked Khazanah how many middle managers the airline had. Apparently, no one knew. It is alleged too that middle managers were running their own firms and bleeding MAS dry by providing services at inflated prices.
When the first cull was made in MAS, the cronies were the first to go. You might think this was a good move, but a MAS insider alleges that it was actually a plan calculated to give a golden parachute to faithful cronies. The cronies and middle managers received handsome retrenchment terms calculated from the time they were first employed. Some had been there for three decades. They received huge amounts in compensation.
Christoph Mueller, and Ahmad Jauhari Yahya
Aware that MAS could not afford to continue giving away these vast sums of money, the management announced that over the next few years, more people would be sacked or asked to retire early but would not be given the same generous compensation terms. In effect, it was a way of getting rid of workers cheaply.
When MAS changed its name to MAB, the employees who were thankful they had been retained had to accept new terms in their contract, which included the prospect of having their services terminated with only two months’ notice. That was why MAS workers were unhappy. Cronies were rewarded. Genuine, hard-working employees were treated shabbily.
So, did Mueller decide to leave because he has a conscience? Or was he concerned about his reputation? He once turned around the ailing Aer Lingus, but with all that is happening in Malaysia now, he probably realises that the longer he waits, the more he risks messing up his CV.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many proud Malaysians were happy to serve MAS. It was a respected and successful airline. If we were to remove political interference, MAB could soar in the skies once again.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.