“DREAM the undreamable, believe the impossible, and never take no for an answer.” AirAsia chief executive officer Datuk Seri Tony Fernandes certainly lives by his company’s creed.
Under his leadership, AirAsia and Air Asia X have just won the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation award, beating airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Not bad for a company that had just two planes and one destination eight years ago, Fernandes himself notes in his blog The Entrepeneur.
During a 5 Nov 2009 interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur, Fernandes reminisces fondly of flying with his entrepreneur mother, who introduced Tupperware to Malaysia. His childhood memories include poignant moments of composing songs with her in the middle of the night.
He also remembers growing up in a Malaysia that was “fun” where people were united, regardless of race; and dreams for that to happen again in Malaysia.
TNG: Where were you born?
Tony Fernandes: I was born at Kuala Lumpur (KL) General Hospital on 30 April 1964, year of the dragon, Taurus.
Where did you grow up?
My first house was just behind Bukit Bintang, Treacher Road (now Jalan Sultan Ismail). The road and house still exist — I just drove past the house the other day. I grew up in KL till I was 12 and then was sent to boarding school in England. I was in England until 1990.
I went to Alice Smith [School] which is why my Malay is non-existent; I suffer for that. I went there from when I was five till 12. I spent seven years in Alice Smith, I hate admitting it.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My father was an Indian citizen, a doctor. He was from Goa, but spent most of his time in Calcutta. He came here to work for a short stint and ended up meeting my mum. He had a green card (for temporary residents) most of his life. Just before he died, he got a red card (for permanent residents). He spent half his life here.
My mother was a Malaysian from Malacca — Ena Fernandez. They both had the same surname — one with “z”, one with “s”. She was a music teacher. She started Tupperware in Malaysia and she was amazing, she could sell ice to an Eskimo. Her parents were Malaysians, about second or third generation.
So, what generation Malaysian are you?
I’ve never really thought about that, I just see myself as Malaysian, I don’t look at what generation and all that.
What are your strongest memories of growing up?
Subang Airport. My mother used to fly a lot because she was in Tupperware and I used to fly with her. I used to hang out a lot in Subang Airport, meeting her or flying with her when she went to different places and conventions.
My mother used to compose songs. She would sing and I would sit on the Yellow Pages phone book and play the piano. Sometimes she’d wake me up at 3am and say, “I’ve got a song, come let’s go and compose.” I can still remember the songs like “I’ve got a Tupper feeling in my head”.
I also remember playing sports with my neighbours. I lived in a street with Indian, Chinese and Malay [Malaysians] all in the same street. We all played football or badminton together — over the gate, in abandoned fields. There was never much talk of race in those days, we were Malaysians. Of course we knew our heredity, you can’t run away from that, but we were Malaysians first. I’ve never thought of myself as an Indian.
Has the way you see yourself as a Malaysian changed?
No. I’ve been very consistent, look at AirAsia. There is no race in AirAsia. It’s a meritocracy, people all intermingle and do their own thing. I never hear anyone talk about race. It’s never changed in my mind.
What are some other stories that you hold on to from your family?
My memories of growing up are of having fun. I think Malaysia is a great place, it was fun; we always had fun.
My mother was a very unique person; she used to have many parties. When [musicians like] The Platters or Ray Charles were in town, she’d invite them over to the house and we’d throw a party for them. In those days, you could just call them up at their hotel and invite them over; it was great.
I remember jamming with Ray Charles in my house. Later on, Ray Charles was a Warner Music artist and when he came to Malaysia, he was very emotional. He remembered my mum and I was vice-president of a record company and he was performing; it was cool.
Do you still play musical instruments?
I’m doing very little music now. Music’s my life, I spend a lot of time listening to music, I don’t play much now.
When my mum died, something died [within] me, I was very close to her and it brings back painful memories. She died when she was very young. I was 16 so life changed dramatically after that because she was so full of life. I don’t play much, just once in a while. I don’t think my kids have heard me play either.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian? What do you think is the essence of being Malaysian?
Our strength is our cultural diversity and being able to be known as one.
Malaysia doesn’t realise how lucky it is. We grew up learning so many different cultures, we have so many different foods. I always say we have such a strong advantage and we don’t really use it.
We have every type of Chinese known to [human]kind — Foo Chows, Cantonese, Teo Chew — you name it, we’ve got it. We’ve got every type of Indian here. We’ve got Malays from Indonesia; Thais, Filipinos. It’s an amazing culture to have and it should be our strength.
We were all together. I don’t remember even talking about Chinese, Malay, Indian, we were all together.
Do we talk more about it now?
Ya, definitely. We’re more segregated than we ever were.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with as a Malaysian?
Malay, I don’t speak Malay, I feel bad I don’t speak Malay, I really do.
I can understand it, I can’t speak it very well. I’d love to be able to speak better.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and for future generations
Firstly, a meritocracy.
Secondly, for Malaysians not to fear speaking up. There’s talk about innovation and building innovation centres, but unless people are free to innovate and think, they won’t innovate. AirAsia for example has a very flat structure so people are allowed to think and allowed to criticise, including criticise me, without fear.
Thirdly, I hope government is [less involved] in business. [Instead], government should facilitate business. It should get involved if private organisations don’t have the means for example, developing solar technology or building a transport infrastructure system.
I hope for the days of seeing Malay, Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] all in one street, enjoying themselves. I hope to see kids playing with each other and having fun. Hopefully AirAsia’s small contribution is a world championship F1 team all Malaysians can be proud of.
I hope we have more creativity in schools and not just focus on scoring As. I don’t think we should have afternoon school — that should be for art, drama and sport. It’s on the sports field that you have integration and experience leadership and teamwork; culture and drama introduces you to expressing yourself through music and acting; the debating society gives you the power to think.
I hope there are less exams and less emphasis on tuition. We’ve got to have all-rounded people in our country. They have to be well-rounded so you can put them in any part of the world. It’s a good education (that produces well-roundedness), cream always rises to the top and they will always excel and always stand out.
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