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“Forget about race”

Azran smiling in his office

Azran Osman-Rani

AZRAN Osman-Rani is Air Asia X’s chief executive officer. Because he doesn’t have an office to himself, for the interview with The Nut Graph on 11 Sept 2009, we sit down at a table in a corner of an open-floor office in full view of other staff at their work stations. Azran shares the same work space as his staff with no cubicles to separate each desk.

The atmosphere at the Air Asia X office in the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal in Sepang is casual and informal. But there’s a hum of efficiency. Perhaps there is more to the airline’s “no-frills” ethos than just budget flights. Doing away with the excess fat and bureaucracy does give one more time and space to develop the values that matter.

Speaking with heartfelt conviction about the values that matter to him, Azran talks about the need for concerted effort to shape a multicultural environment for his children and the company he works in.

TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Family portrait

Azran (at the back), with maternal grandmother Sajidah Salleh, parents Safiah Osman and Osman-Rani Hassan, and siblings (all family pics courtesy of Azran Osman-Rani)

I was born in 1971 and I’m 110% KL, from the General Hospital to Kampung Pandan for my first couple of years, then Bangsar Telawi for four years, and then Taman Tun [Dr Ismail] from Standard One right up to Form Five.

I’ve also been lucky to have had a number of overseas living experiences. At age one to two, my dad did his PhD in Manila. When I was nine and 10, my mum did her PhD in New York. I studied in the United States and after coming back, I was able to spend a year working in Thailand, then a year in Indonesia, then Singapore and a year in Korea. It provided useful perspectives in seeing what’s out there in the world and [allows one the ability] to appreciate [one's] own culture and roots when [one] is overseas.

What did your parents do and how did they influence your upbringing?

Young Azran

Azran, at age six

Dad was a former professor of economics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and mum was a former professor of education at Universiti Malaya. They did their academic work regionally so our household had a lot of exposure to people of different cultures.

Our parents always allowed me and my siblings to engage with their friends. Our household was not one where kids were seen and not heard. We sat at the dinner table and had conversations with our parents’ friends.

At age four, I got to talk to professors and academics from other countries. At that age I was really into art and drawing, and every painting I did I would show to my parents’ friends. That gave me a lot of self-confidence as a kid. When you become familiar with differences, you can attract and talk to older people and people from diverse backgrounds. Some of my mum’s friends today say they still remember my paintings.

Can you trace your ancestry?

Grandfather in uniform

Leftenan Hassan Yassin, Azran’s paternal grandfather

There is an element of multicultural heritage. On my maternal side, my grandfather is Indian-Ceylonese Muslim. But I don’t know whether it was he who migrated or his parents who migrated. He died before I was born. He was a technician with a surveying department in the government.

My maternal grandmother is of Bugis descent and was from Linggi, Negeri Sembilan. She was an orphan and a second wife to my grandfather. They raised nine kids. In that environment raising kids during the Japanese occupation, all the older kids had to work and sacrifice so that the younger kids could get an education. My mum was number eight. Number seven, eight and nine were the ones who got full education all the way up to university.

Azran as a baby with paternal grandmother


On my paternal side, my grandmother is an ethnic Chinese who was adopted by a Malay family. My paternal grandfather was considered a war hero, Leftenan Hassan Yassin, who fought during the Japanese occupation and against the communists in the 1948 insurgency. He died in a communist ambush in Gua Musang in 1948. They exhumed his body from Kelantan and brought it to Makhamah Pahlawan in Port Dickson where his whole regiment was buried. He died when my father, who was the eldest, was barely six years old.

So my young grandmother, who worked as a midwife, had three small kids and suddenly lost her husband. She raised them in Ipoh. Reflecting on both sides, I see how both my dad’s and mum’s parents and siblings did everything to get them into university.

Growing up, I wasn’t very aware of my family history but knowing it now, it’s a source of pride to say that I have Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian blood.

What memories do you have of inter-racial childhood friendships?

Children dressed up for a performance

Children dressed up for a performance Azran (third from left) in Standard One at the Methodist primary school, with his “Rasa Sayang” concert troupe

Growing up in KL, we didn’t talk about being inter-racial. It was just part and parcel of life. I went to the Methodist kindergarten in Section 5, Petaling Jaya. We had no issues about singing hymns at kindergarten. Now, we’re a lot more conscious about race but growing up we were never aware of it. We judged our friends based on whether we shared the same activities.

When did you become aware of race and how did that happen?

When I came back from overseas. Malaysia in the last 10 years has become a lot more inward and ethnic-focused. It’s come to a point where [my wife] Azreen and I pulled out our son from Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Damansara because it was a very different school environment from when we were in school 20 years ago. It’s now very Malay-centric and very religious. We’ve put our son in [a private international school].

As parents, our challenge is that government schools are a lot more polarised these days. We now have to actively look for environments to raise our kids which still provide a multi-racial and multi-cultural experience. You have to actively do this or your kids get sucked into the polarised mainstream.

Are there any aspects of being Malaysian that you struggle with?

None really except that these days we tend to be way too focused and sensitive about race. I think a lot of it has to do with the political system that’s polarised and has labelled people. We are missing out on the vast opportunities that come from embracing diversity. Instead, we’re becoming more homogenous in thinking and approach.

Children

Azran (left) at age six, with brother Azrul and sister Azleen

That’s why [I] actively ensure that [my kids] have friends from different races. In the work environment, in my years of working as a management consultant, I saw that a lot of companies were still very homogenous in their shareholding and management structure. There are very ingrained cultures, for example, the very Malay [Malaysian] government-linked companies and very Chinese [Malaysian]-centric banks and companies. I learnt that you have to actively address this.

Here, the Air Asia X team is very diverse but it is intentionally constructed that way. If I left it to everyone, as with most organisations, the finance team would probably be primarily Chinese [Malaysian], so would the IT team, and the engineering team would be very Malay [Malaysian].

Air Asia Allstars moto — all for one, one for all

Air Asia Allstars moto — all for one, one for all Motto in the Air Asia X office

How do you implement diversity in Air Asia X, through quotas?

It’s not done in a structured way, but rather than quotas, what’s more important is the values that we live. What I stand for, what my team stands for, how we talk and how we interact. The softer parts for me are more important. It’s how we govern ourselves rather than by policies or quotas.

For example, how do we inculcate in the heads of department to hire more women pilots and women engineers, and ensure that we have all races in all departments. And it doesn’t end with hiring, because even if you hire them, people stick to their own little cliques. You still have to create the right forums, especially informally, so that people socialise together. Leaders have to do their part because if you rely on quotas and systems, you’ll still get microcosms of homogeneity.

What do you think makes you Malaysian?

Actually, where I am now, I’m trying to break out from that. Rather than thinking of ourselves as Malaysians, let’s embrace an Asean identity, or an Asian identity. Partly because that’s Air Asia’s business model. We’ve moved on beyond the whole Malay, Chinese or Indian thing. We’re looking at how to make someone in Thailand think of Air Asia as a Thai airline, or making an Australian think that this is an Australian airline. Localisation is important.

Frisbee team — a lot of men

Azran (right, seated), was a member of the ultimate Frisbee team at university in the United States

As Malaysians, we should be the ones more open to a multi-cultural set of values compared to more homogenous societies in neighbouring countries. We should be the ones leading that in terms of work, and socially.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for your children and future generations.

To have openness, not just along ethnic and gender lines, but also regionally and globally. It’s a matter of necessity.

We are acutely aware that Malaysia as a market is way too small. We’re surrounded by huge markets like China, India and Indonesia. Even Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines are more than double the size of Malaysia, so as a matter of survival we have to reach out and participate actively on that scale. We’ve got to move away from being driven by political agenda in terms of the whole divide and conquer thing, and move on beyond race.

Pullquote

Forget about race. There’s a bigger battle between Malaysia and the rest of the world. It means that in all our respective roles we have to consciously and actively create those opportunities. We have to shape and nurture a set of values among the people we are responsible for. It’s a big part of my role as a parent, and in the company. favicon

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17 Responses to ““Forget about race””

  1. Nicholas Aw says:

    An interesting article, Deborah. Those racist Umno goons could learn a lesson or two from it but I doubt they ever will since they practise a policy of divide and rule.

    It is very true that government national schools are becoming very Islamic. Of course, the education minister will vehemently deny this and say there is nothing wrong in having the doa in the morning assembly as it is asking God to protect and bless the insan. But why must only one doa be held? Since it’s a multicultural society, then we should also have doas from the various religious community, shouldn’t we?

    I believe what is more important is the sincere prayer from our hearts. It’s better to ask all the students to pray in their hearts. Isn’t communicating with God a personal thing?

    Azran Osman-Rani is blessed as he is financially able to send his children to Sri KDU. We are not envious of his financial empire, but what is of more concern are the average wage earners who have no choice but to send their children to government schools. As much as assurance that government schools are really good schools, it’s diffcult to swallow; otherwise why would Najib, Hishamuddin and other ministers send thier children to study elswhere?

    • just saying says:

      Just saying, there’s nothing wrong for government schools to have doa every morning. This is not a secular country which separates religion and the government. I think everyone is aware of that and if some people have difficulties accepting that, I guess racial unity is just a dream. Besides, believe me, those doa don’t convert non-Muslim kids as they don’t even understand the prayers. Why has this kind of issue become a big deal? I guess true 1Malaysia is far away from reality with this kind of attitudes. Just saying :)

  2. Bryan says:

    I agree that making a conscious effort to not fall into cultural cliques is important. It’s just too easy and too comfortable to segregate yourselves if you don’t.

  3. rudy says:

    Wow. Moral of the story: more moolah, less hairy one gets…

  4. surendra naidu says:

    It is comforting to learn that there are still some level-headed people left in Malaysia.

  5. Azizi Khan says:

    “If I left it to everyone, as with most organisations, the finance team would probably be primarily Chinese [Malaysian], so would the IT team, and the engineering team would be very Malay [Malaysian].”

    This is one of the things I noticed when I came back to KL recently. Nothing had changed in the last ten years. Signs such as “Chinese preferred” and “Bumiputra encouraged to apply” [are] still seen.

    But the worst part is not the actively-promoted racism. It’s the unseen invisible ones. For example, in private companies as mentioned in this article finance, HR and IT would be primarily Chinese [Malaysian] and other departments would be other races. Funny thing is, some of [these] companies are known internationally for equality practices. But it seems, when it comes to Malaysia, it goes out the window.

    For example, I sent my dad’s car to Honda (Japanese) for servicing and I couldn’t help but notice that every single [member] of its sales, management [and] service teams were Chinese [Malaysian]. Did that happen by accident ? Now turn around and go to a Proton/Perodua centre. Get the picture?

    Who do you blame? HR managers? Directors? CEOs? Politicians? Barack Obama? Your next-door auntie?

    I think many people, no matter how non-racist they are, forget that [the] rest of Malaysia is still very ethnically driven. Generally, the average Malaysian does not want to know about other races or religions. [Malay Malaysians] are viewed as lazy, [Chinese Malaysians] as thieves and [Indian Malaysians] as thugs [...].

    For example, a relative of mine who is a staunch Umno supporter lamented that the “[Malay Malaysians] were offended by the cow incident” and “how they [Malay Malaysians] have already lost Penang to the [Chinese Malaysian]…” Then there are Islamic politicians who are hell-bent (pun intended) on implementing Islamic policies even if it means denying everyone else their fundamental human rights. Never mind if you trip in Malaysia, you’re likely to fall into a mosque – sadistic pleasure is sought by denying [the] building of places of worship by other [faith communities]. The whole system just reeks hypocrisy.

    If this is how people think, we might as well go back to our respective caves. I laugh at all the talk-ups of 1Malaysia when there [are] so [many] racial issues in the country. The way things are in Malaysia, achieving 1Kampung is difficult, never mind the bigger things.

    The bigger question is: Can the average Malaysian, irrespective of race, function without having to resort to quota? Honestly, if i walk into a private organisation in KL and to the accounts or finance department and see everyone being [Chinese Malaysian] – the question that pops to my mind is – don’t tell me you couldn’t find ONE qualified [Indian Malaysian] or [Malay Malaysian]? Same thing with walking into any government department or GLC. And we are supposed to accept this is how things are? And you want 1Malaysia from this?

    One thing though, there are few companies in Malaysia that successfully achieve 1Malaysia day after day. Malaysians from all walk of life, regardless of race and religion, wherever in Malaysia, dutifully and without fail line up to buy Magnum 4D and Toto. No amount of restriction (by religious officials that Muslims must not gamble) will stop the average Malaysian [from trying] their luck. Go figure.

    Malaysia may not be truly Asia, but it’s one of a kind!

  6. D Lim says:

    If you ask why the [government] departments are filled with Malay [Malaysian] employees, that is BECAUSE they selectively employ more Malay [Malaysians] and all non-Malay [Malaysians] are aware of the fact that career advancement in government offices are few and far between.

    Let’s face it, I also encourage [non-Malay Malaysians] not to waste their time looking for jobs in the government offices because they cannot go far. And then where else can they go? The private sector. That is why [Azizi] sees many non-Malay [Malaysians] in the Honda car yard and many Malay [Malaysians] in the Proton car yard.

    It is not that I do not want my children to work for the government but the reality is their chances of advancement [are] very slim and even if they advance, they cannot go very far. That’s a FACT of life in Malaysia. So what you see in real life is the result of polarisation of races due to [government] policies. We do not wish this to be but when you play the race game, everything becomes racial. I do not invite my Malay [Malaysian] friends home for meals because I do not want to offend them and make them uncomfortable by offering food cooked at home. Hence, if I were to give my Malay [Malaysian] friends a treat, I need to bring them to halal restaurants. This creates a situation whereby you mix with Malay [Malaysian] friends only in restaurants but never at home. However, I do feel comfortable inviting my Indian [Malaysian] friends home because I know they will not feel uncomfortable eating my cooked [food]. Now tell me, is it my fault?

    • Aero says:

      True enough, government servants are not guaranteed any career advancement or anything or of that sorts. They just do jobs as specified in their job scope, and a promotion only entails if excellent qualities are spotted, evaluated and deemed justified.

      Its only sad to know that there has been a generalization that only Malays are keen on working for the government while non-Malays are not interested. Truthfully there has been some good participation of non-Malays in the public service sector, and these people shows excellent commitment alongside their Malay colleagues.

      Opinions from D Lim, unfortunately, only goes to show that majority of non-Malays find the racial barrier is still great to handle. If career advancement is the only thing that goes through every Malaysian mind, then I fear none will be able to lend their hand in building a strong task force in our Malaysian governance. A further misconception that non-Malays are only seeking wealth on Malaysian soil is bound to surface yet again. Perhaps some people do bring along their wealth even in the after worlds. No one’s fault at that I have to say

    • idris says:

      If everyone thinks the way you’re thinking, it seems to me things will remain as they are even if a new breed of enlightened Malays come to take over the government offices. How are these (new breed) of Malays to have more non-Malays fill the ranks if they (the non-Malays) all think like you? What would they have to do to make you believe that things have changed, and that your children now have an equal chance of moving up?

      Clever advertising? Hmm… people have a hard time believing any good news from the government these days, I don’t see how this will work. Perhaps if they spoke to you over a meal at your house? Speaking of which, it seems to me you don’t have any Malay friends of the ‘right’ kind.

      “Now tell me, is it my fault?”
      Possibly. To blame everything on the government is just wrong.

      • JW Tan says:

        Nothing is better than an actual example. Where are our senior non-Malay members of our civil service? Where are our non-Malay generals, admirals and chief superintendents? I find race-based discrimination abhorrent, but I can see the merit in promoting a ‘token’ ethnic Chinese or ‘token’ ethnic Indian person to high office in the security forces or the civil service, to serve as a beacon for our ambitious young people, and lay the ground for future race-blind, meritocratic advancement.

        Another reason why I don’t necessarily agree is because if someone who is incapable is promoted, then the whole exercise turns from a positive example into a negative one. But as another commenter said, why is it so hard to find one appropriate person of the right ethnicity?

  7. YJ Tan says:

    Why bother what kind of race we are? Is it that important whether the bloodline is pure or not? At least we know we are all campur-aduk or rojak, a multi-cultural society, that’s Malaysia.

  8. Jerry says:

    Azran,
    You must have a 360 degree change of heart and in racial outlook since your working days in Astro

  9. Ngehngehngeh says:

    Well the rot in our education system began when Anwar Ibrahim was the education minister. It became more Arab than the Arabs.

  10. neptunian says:

    Once Mahathir came to power and started promoting racism, all was lost. It would take a really strong and brave UMNO leader to change that. I simply do not see that happening.

    The people to people relationship 20-30 years ago was pretty good. I had no trouble inviting Muslims friend to my place for dinner. The question of Halal or non halal did not arise. Simply no pork!

    Now the religious department gets so carried away, they test for DNA! What the heck, Please try to find DNA in the Koran. There is no more sensibility, just dogmatic idiots.

    • Flag of Truth says:

      # Neptunian

      You say whatever you like without thinking don’t you? :) Allah did give us guidance through the Quran. The Quran is revealed to Muhammad in the Arabic Language so that the people at that time can understand it and accept it. Al Quran is for those who want to think.

      For example Allah explains about about the creation of human in Surah Al Mukminun (23: verse 12,13 and 14).

      12.And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay. 13. Then We placed him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging. 14. Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah , the best of creators.”

      DNA was not mentioned at that time because the purpose is to make people at that time (who have no knowledge about the terminology of DNA) understand.

      Of course Muslims must be careful with what we eat. Muslims can not eat pork because its is prohibited by Allah. That is why Muslims now prefer buying food and things from Muslims.

  11. Flag of Truth says:

    # neptunian

    Sometimes there are people who just block their hearts and minds and don’t want to listen to the truth. :)


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