By Mariam Mokhtar
When the Defence Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the MP for Bagan Datoh in Perak, rallied Malaysians to unite against a common enemy, he was not disappointed. Last month Tony Fernandez, the CEO of AirAsia, the budget airline, answered the call of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to help defend Sabah against an armed incursion of Suluk invaders.
The MOD needed to deploy extra soldiers, quickly, to boost the security forces in Sabah. Fernandez came to the rescue and rescheduled the airline’s tight timetable, so he could divert a few Airbus aircraft, to fly to Lahad Datu.
Despite mounting criticism that he had deliberately inconvenienced commercial and fare-paying travellers, Fernandez was adamant that serving one’s country was of paramount importance.
A pilot who refused to be named said, “I was proud to play a role in national security and ferry our troops to defend Sabah. I hope the flight was comfortable and with minimal delays.”
His call was echoed by a member of the cabin crew who said, “The men were very disciplined on board, unlike some fare-paying passengers. It was a pleasure to serve them, although some were disappointed with the choice of food sold on board.”
Fernandez had twice twittered to an irate public, “Flights are rearranged today as we are helping the army transfer staff to East Malaysia. Pls be patient,” and later, he said, “As mentioned please be patient with some flight arrangements on flights as we are helping the army”.
Switchboard operators and check-out staff at AirAsia counters faced a barrage of complaints from furious passengers because of postponements and cancellations. They were concerned about compensation and refunds, but claimed that their concerns were ignored.
The patriotic Fernandez was praised by security chiefs, for his efforts in promoting national security. The flights carried at least two battalions of soldiers so that the more cumbersome military aircraft could be deployed to transport heavy artillery, tanks, lorries and supplies to Sabah’s east coast.
Zahid had waved off the first of the battalions at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) and was pleased with the trial run of transporting soldiers by commercial airline. He was satisfied with the rapid response of AirAsia and at the cost savings made by the MOD.
As a consequence, he has proposed that AirAsia be utilised for further troop movements and that some AirAsia planes be painted in military camouflage colours. Various defence officials have made additional requests – the cabin crew would be allowed to retain their short skirts and figure hugging uniforms, to boost troop morale but they would have to wear camouflage and not the current red uniforms.
Unconfirmed sources allege that the test run by AirAsia prompted Zahid to set up a special committee to look into ways to reduce spending. Several proposals to tighten the government belt were presented to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in an attempt to avoid future austerity measures.
Zahid’s proposals initially caused a stir in government circles but his background as a banker persuaded Najib that these measures would convince the rakyat of the government’s seriousness in tackling the budget deficit.
Political insiders have alleged that ministers and senior state officials were delighted to spearhead these spending cuts. One proposal involved a ban on all government servants using the national carrier, Malaysia Airlines (MAS); in future they would fly AirAsia, if the routes were served by the budget carrier.
A senior civil servant said, “If our law-makers were to use AirAsia, its management might be induced to improve their services, as MPs want to make best use of their time. It would also help our politicians and civil servants empathise with the public.”
One junior official said, on condition of anonymity, “Millions of ringgits would be shaved off the ministerial budget. Our annual expenditure for overseas assignments is wasted on excess luggage charges incurred by officials and the shopping of their spouses and the bloated entourage.
“In future, if MAS was the only option available, no official will be upgraded. With more of the expensive seats available for legitimate fare-paying passengers, the revenue for MAS would increase.
“On AirAsia, officials will only be allowed one piece of luggage at the taxpayer’s expense.”
Another committee member examining the cuts said, “We also looked at reducing at the size of the entourage. Accompanying spouses will be banned, as they are a distraction. All officials will travel exclusively by economy class with MAS.
“Officials on overseas assignments would share a room, and use only budget hotels like Tunes. Heads of Departments or Pengarahs may be upgraded to a ‘bed-and-breakfast’.
“Airline employees or Malaysian High Commission or Embassy staff will not be allowed to meet the government servant on arrival, or see him off at departure, as it wastes valuable working time. The head of the overseas mission, will be entitled to use the national car, the Proton, as it will show our pride in our local car industry”.
According to this civil servant, the same vehicle proposal has been outlined for Cabinet ministers and state officials. “Imported foreign cars will be auctioned off and only the Proton will be used. No outriders will be allowed for ministers, and the Agung will be allowed one outrider.
“Ministerial spouses and children will not get preferential treatment. Where possible, the use of public transport will be encouraged. If ministers use their cars and get stuck in the traffic jams, so be it. It is time our politicians get a grip on the transport woes of the rakyat. They can only do so if they were to experience the same suffering as the taxpayers”.
According to a source in the PM’s Department (PMD) and the offices of Menteris Besar throughout Malaysia, the initial resistance to these measures was overcome when senior politicians agreed that the benefits outweigh the minor discomforts that they would have to endure.