AirAsia boss says he will 'forever regret' appearing to back Malaysia's Najib before election

Key Points
  • Tony Fernandes, CEO of Malaysian low-cost airline AirAsia, apologized on Sunday for a video that appeared to endorse ousted leader Najib Razak ahead of the May 9 general election.
  • Fernandes called the video "a grave error of judgement" and said that he would "forever regret it."
AirAsia stock slides as Malaysian markets reopen
AirAsia stock slides as Malaysian markets reopen

In the aftermath of Malaysia's stunning election result, one of the country's most respected business figures has admitted to "buckling" to pressure from the previous government.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, who enjoys near-rockstar status in the Southeast Asian nation, apologized on Sunday for a flashy, apparent endorsement of then-leader Najib Razak in the run- up to the May 9 general election. Najib was defeated in an unexpected election upset at the hands of Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday.

AirAsia's stock tanked as much as 10 percent on Monday as the Malaysian market re-opened for trading post-election.

Fernandes, dubbed Malaysia's version of Virgin Group magnate Sir Richard Branson, said on Facebook that he made "a grave error of judgement" by appearing in a May 6 video in which he thanked scandal-ridden Najib for AirAsia's growth.

Shortly following that video, Najib tweeted photos of himself with Fernandes on an AirAsia plane that sported the campaign slogan of Najib's long-ruling Barisan National party.

Najib Razak tweet

Those developments prompted fierce backlash from Malaysian netizens. Public anger over Najib's alleged involved in a multi-billion dollar graft case involving state funds was a primary reason underlining the electoral upset of the 64 year-old, who has denied any wrongdoing in the so-called 1MDB scandal.

Fernandes on Sunday said he "foolishly" made the May 6 video, which he described as "fairly neutral and factual," to "appease" Najib's government.

Fernandes also said that the former administration was pushing him to remove Chairman Rafidah Aziz of long-haul carrier AirAsia X and cancel 120 extra flights that were created especially for Malaysians to return home to vote.

What happened to Malaysia's 1MDB money?
What happened to Malaysia's 1MDB money?

The government's displeasure with both those factors placed "intense pressure" on AirAsia, Fernandes explained, admitting that he "buckled at the crucial moment in [Malaysia's] history."

"It wasn't right, I'll forever regret it but it was a decision made at the spur of the moment" to protect the company and the jobs of AirAsia staffers, he said.

'Re-positioning himself'

Fernandes is simply "re-positioning himself in relation to the new political constellation," commented Vedi Hadiz, deputy director of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Links between business and politics remain strong in Malaysia, so the CEO's apology "probably reflects some anxiety that is based on the expectation that the link will continue to be important within this new constellation, even if hopes for fundamental reforms are currently high," Hadiz continued.

AirAsia told CNBC that it would have no comment on the matter.

"Tony is trying to recover from the damage done to both his personal and the AirAsia brand," said James Chin, an expert on Southeast Asia politics at the University of Tasmania. "It was a mistake to do the plane stunt — most Malaysians feel like he overdid it."

Given how intertwined corporate and government affairs are in Kuala Lumpur — major companies typically donate huge amounts to parties during elections — it simply isn't possible for senior executives to disentangle themselves from politics, Chin explained.