KUALA LUMPUR: At 83, Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman is still a practising lawyer who could be seen in the courtrooms clad in his black robes.
However, most Malaysians will not remember Abdul Aziz as a lawyer but as the ex-chief executive officer/managing director of Malaysia Airlines or known by its former acronym MAS during the airline’s golden years.
Yet, the law has always been the first love for this down-to-earth octogenarian and hence after retiring, he returned to where he started.
“I, in fact, made up my mind that I would practise law once I retire from MAS,” Abdul Aziz said in his biography “Tan Sri Datuk Indera Dr Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman: On Course from Take-off to Touch Down” authored by Sharifah Mariam Syed Mansor Al-Idrus.
The biography, published by Tun Suffian Foundation was launched by Socio-Cultural Adviser to the Government, Rais Yatim at Universiti Malaya on March 25.
A high flyer from the start
He was a highly respected corporate figure in his days and a highly esteemed personality in the commercial aviation circles. He literally took MAS by its wings to greater heights where the airline was not only on a sound financial footing but also received international accolades for its inflight service.
By the time he retired in 1992, he had already etched his name in the world of civil aviation. Hence, its is no surprise that the Kota Bharu-born Abdul Aziz was offered to head the Philippines Airlines by a consultant based in New York in turning around the ailing airline.
In an interview with Bernama at his home in Bukit Damansara here, he said; “I, however, turned down the offer because accepting it meant that I had to move to Manila which my wife was not willing to do”.
A hand in MAS even before he became the CEO
Abdul Aziz, who earned a Barrister-at-Law at Lincoln’s Inn, London, upon his return in 1957 joined the civil service as an administrative officer and later became a magistrate and sessions court president.
However, the racial riots on May 13, 1969, changed everything where he was appointed Legal Counsel and Legal Officer of the National Operations Council (NOC), drafting laws that would ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again.
After 15 years of working with the government, in 1971 Abdul Aziz moved to a new role in helping to create Malaysia’s own airline as Malaysian-Singapore Airlines (MSA) prepared for a split the following year.
He said his first job as the secretary and legal affairs director in MAS was to handle the legal ramifications of the MSA breakup namely regarding the splitting of assets such as planes, absorption of staff into the new airline and financial implications.
(MSA was originally known as Malayan Airways in 1947, it was renamed Malaysian Airways after Merdeka, and then Malaysia-Singapore Airline in 1965)
No looking back
For Abdul Aziz, helping to transform MAS from a small airline with mainly domestic routes into a global, award-winning, international flag carrier was a proud achievement.
During his tenure, the company witnessed a drastic growth in passenger traffic, aircraft number and routes. The airline was in an expansion phase and on the right course. MAS evolved into a distinguished brand name that Malaysians were proud of.
When he retired in 1991, he left the company with a cash reserve of RM5 billion, compared with the day he took over as the MAS CEO in 1982, where the airline suffered a RM39 million deficit and was in need of a RM70 million rolling fund.
“I took some drastic measures, including setting up a task force with the objectives of increasing profits, streamlining the workforce and identifying profitable routes,” he pointed out.
Though he may have left the airline, his passion for aviation and the airline that he once headed remains strong. Hence, its is not surprising to see him commenting in the media on the issues plaguing the airline that he was once synonymous with. Abdul Aziz has been very candid in his assessment of the airline’s predicament.
For the airline employees who had served during Abdul Aziz’s tenure, the airline’s poor state of affairs only goes to indicate Abdul Aziz’s achievements have been reversed and his legacy erased.
Apart from declining revenues and routes, the loss of flight MH370 over the south Indian Ocean and the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, both in 2014, added more woes for the ailing airline.
Many drastic steps were proposed to revive the airline’s flagging fortunes, including the highly loathed idea of a share swap between MAS and AirAsia that even Abdul Aziz was vehemently against it.
He also questioned the troubled airline’s acquisition of six A380s, which he felt were under utilised and costly to operate.
Abdul Aziz had stated clearly that he does not intend to be a busybody by interfering into MAS’ affairs but believes constructive criticism could help provide a new direction for the airline.
In the fist quarter of 2016, the airline recorded a net income of RM51 million and a profit of RM14 million providing some respite from its financial turmoil.
Life after retirement
Abdul Aziz does not believe in retirement. He keeps himself occupied with work, family and activities.
Now that his children have families of their own, Abdul Aziz finds time for his other pursuits like writing for Dewan Masyarakat magazine, besides gardening where his garden is filled with blooming roses and jasmines.
In his younger days, he used to enjoy robust sports like golfing and deep sea fishing but after suffering an injury from a fall, he decided that such sports were for young roosters and he was not one anymore.
On his return to law practice, he said; “My former classmate from Ismail English School in Kota Bahru who also studied at Lincoln’s Inn, invited me to join his law firm, Messrs Nik Saghir and Ismail, which I accepted”.
Asked what inspired him to take up law in the first place, he said a school trip to the courts exposed him to what he thought was a glamorous life as a lawyer.
Though he specialised in corporate and aviation law, since his return to the law practice he was involved in a number of high-profile civil cases including the “Kalimah Allah” case.
Abdul Aziz, currently the chairman of the Tun Suffian Foundation, also believes in giving back to the society. So when not in court, he is busy giving talks to students and non-governmental organisations on the constitution. He is also active in the Bukit Damansara Residents Association, of which he is the chairman.