Remembering a titan
Our foremost challenge now was to go international. It was a truly daunting task.
SIA had teamed up with Qantas and British Airways to box us in from Australia to the UK.
Cathay Pacific and JAL blocked us from the East. Thai Airways and SAS were sited to the North. We were truly hemmed in.
Aerial combat is usually termed a “dogfight” because dog eats dog.
Airlines fight to protect their right to carry passengers at home or abroad to the exclusion of other airlines.
Cut throat price wars, fringe benefits like subsidised flights from the hinterland to the hub, free accommodation plus other fringe benefits are all part of the lure.
Although traffic rights to take passengers from one country to and from another country, and from that country to a third or fourth country along the way to the ultimate destination (called “freedoms”) are notionally given by the government of those countries, (bi-laterals) in actual fact a case has to be first established with the national flag carrier based in those countries.
In other words, having a big new plane serving the best food with the most beautiful air hostesses was a non-starter unless we could first negotiate our traffic rights into those territories with an adequate passenger load and cargo.
Besides, those big planes cost millions in US dollars. The challenge was paying back the loan.
This is done in annual instalments spread over say 20 years and should be paid from the income generated after paying off fuel bills, operation costs and wages. All this meant very careful forecasting of projected earnings and expenditure.
It was into this scenario that I was appointed a board member of MAS in 1975 and first met Saw.
Only five foot six and about 140 lbs with a very soft voice, Saw was the anti-thesis of the usual, big, brawny and bossy airline man.
This first impression was immediately dispersed when he started discussing the issues we had to confront.
During my tenure on the board till 1983 the other board members were our chairman, deputy chairman Tan Sri Sulaiman Sujak, Tan Sri Ishak Tadin then the secretary-general from the Ministry of Transport. From the Treasury we had the late Tan Sri Malik Merican and Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, and independent directors Tun Dzaiddin Abdullah, Tan Sri Azman Hashim and Datuk Yap Lim Sen.
Patriotism was of a different order then. Our director of engineering Datuk Resham Singh and his associate Sitham Nadarajah and our director of customer services Lee Shu Poh all left Singapore to serve MAS.
From within the MCS we had the indefatigable Tan Sri Aziz Abdul Rahman as company secretary, Kamaruddin Isa in charge of financial affairs, and his associate Poopalasingam, Datuk Abdullah Mat Zaid in human resources, Bernard Thomazios for commercial affairs.
Capt Hassan, Capt Khary, Capt Ali and Capt Gurchuran Singh, all Datuks were our senior pilots.
Our senior station managers were Chan Chat Lai, Peter Ling, Azlan Hussain, among others.
Selana Othman gave us her stunning designs for the uniforms of our air hostesses and even the unique pattern of our Noritake crockery with its multi-coloured Kelantan kite design.
These are some of the names that come to mind who went to making up the diverse talents who were harnessed to make the airline one efficient flying machine.
At our animated discussions, on the board our chairman was a genius in achieving consensus.
We only took a vote twice in the 10 years I was on the board.
What changed me forever when I came within the aura of Saw and the late Raja Mohar was the power of teamwork.
Beyond my chambers and the court room and as part of the team I had to help drive hard bargains with some of the most sophisticated businessmen and bureaucrats when we were negotiating contracts for aircraft or for traffic rights especially into London.
The frequency of its services, its mechanical reliability, the allure of its cabin crew, the in-flight service, the internal décor of the cabin, and the quality of its cuisine, all added up to give the airline its unique charisma and appeal.
Saw was the man who held this team together, and inspired it to greater heights.
In addition to his personal touch with every one in the organisation right down to the tea ladies, he gave us an unerring sense of purpose by his corporate philosophy of management by objective.
Today, the public thinks that MAS only survived by its bail-outs.
As long as Saw and Aziz and their stalwarts were there the airline lived up to its name.