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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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