Please don’t be Tak Sopan

This article first appeared in the MARKETING Weekender issue 300

When I first received the forwarded snippet of airasia’s virtual town hall, it was accompanied by a screenshot of an email from an anonymous sender, with the title ’An Open Letter from an Allstar’, addressed to ‘undisclosed recipients’. This was almost a week ago and since then, several media outlets have picked up the story and airasia themselves have issued statements and apologies (for getting caught?). 

Yet what was even more troubling than the contents of the video, was airasia’s idea of what constitutes as an appropriate statement and how the incident was handled in general. 

Airasia’s Response

So far, Tassapon Bijleveld, CEO of airasia Thailand and the main perpetrator of offensive language in the video has issued an internal video apology. Aireen Omar, the President of airasia, has maintained radio silence and is yet to issue any statements.   

Tony Fernandes, on the other hand, has made several comments referring to the incident and his last comment was during a virtual launch of his podcast on Wednesday when, among other things, he said that while he admits that Tassapon’s behaviour was “appalling” he is still a “great leader” and that it wasn’t a display of sexism but rather Tassapon “was under a lot of pressure.”  The cherry on top of these obtuse statements was his comment that the video was “edited” and that “it didn’t have Tassapon abusing (him) as well, by constantly interrupting (him).” 

Tony equating his own “abuse”, with that of a female staff with an asymmetrical* power relationship with Tassapon, makes me wonder if he truly grasps the severity of the incident. His refusal to acknowledge at the very least the appearance of sexism in the incident but rather cite airasia’s history of being the first airline to hire a female pilot is yet another example of him using anecdotal evidence to divert issues stemming from within.

A company that perceives it has zero workplace discrimination (in this case, sexism) within its organisation by referencing few and far examples of its efforts for equality in effect creates an environment that is harder for the discriminated to speak up and seek solutions. 

Maybe this explains why the Allstar that emailed the open letter did so anonymously. “I would like to tell you of my discomfort and want to assure you that this isn’t the view of merely one Allstar,” the email reads before recounting the town hall incident. 

To understand what the sender meant by this sentence, I contacted the email address that appears in the screenshot to follow up. 

When I asked if they could explain what prompted the open letter and what was its objective, they replied, “Because this isn’t an isolated incident and (I) merely wanted to bring this up to raise awareness that it’s not cool and that perhaps we should try and affect some changes within the organisation. The letter was sent with no demands, it’s just to tell the Management how I felt, how my fellow colleagues felt. (It was) anonymous because I didn’t want to deal with being singled out.”

The fear of being singled out doesn’t seem like an exaggeration considering another related interaction that took place between Sulin Lau, the Regional Head of Brand & Country Marketing at Grab and Bilal Waris, the Head of Human Resources at airasia. 

In a LinkedIn post expressing how Tony and Aireen’s reactions and lack of intervention was more shocking than Tassapon’s behaviour, Sulin writes, “for leaders, silence is complicity (and) if you are neutral in situations of bullying/oppression, you’ve chosen to side with the oppressor.” While professionally there is a need to acknowledge the business rivalry between Grab and airasia, Sulin’s words ring true.

Yet, Bilal responded to the post with a comment expressing his disheartenment that Sulin had “jumped to conclusions” by labelling airasia’s leaders and that “Allstars are the heart of our business (and) there is nothing more important for Tony and leaders than (the) respect and freedom for Allstars.”

How can the Head of Human Resources that is supposed to advocate for employees, not catch the irony in his comment? If respect and freedom really is of utmost priority to these leaders, why didn’t they defend the dignity of the female speaker as she was berated not once, but thrice, within three minutes? Perhaps Bilal needs to be reminded that there is a clear distinction between stating company values and actually upholding them in everyday situations. 

The word “Allstars” itself now makes me squirm a little bit. While I am sure it is airasia’s way of selling their corporate image, there is much value in remembering that you’re a first an employee of a company with a professional agreement before you decide whether to be one of Tony’s Allstar

The anonymous open letter sender also emphasised that while airasia has addressed this issue as an isolated incident that doesn’t reflect the true ethos of the company, this isn’t true. 

“In another virtual town hall, (on) the topic of cabin crew participating as delivery partners, Tony declared that some of the airasia cabin crew are ‘f***ing ugly’, but when you put them in our red uniform, they’re ok. Breast sizes were also mentioned in passing. He truly believes that objectifying women and putting them in sexy attire is good for business, branding wise I guess.”

There is much to pride ourselves in the successes of airasia and Tony Fernandes. This piece doesn’t merely come as a retort for not receiving ticket refunds but it was because profanities were used in an insulting way and this shouldn’t be whitewashed with toxic positivity. 

It could also have swiftly ended if Tony, someone who is an inspirational figure to many Malaysians, displayed true leadership and humanity by apologising and acknowledging that there was no need for the young woman to be treated that way and that he regrets allowing it to go on for as long as it did. Maybe he could have seen the “edited” video and looked at it from her perspective instead of saying that there was a whole episode of bullying that provides context and hence isn’t as bad as it seems.

I could only imagine how hard it has been for the airline company for the last 2 years but not very many leaders in stressful situations condone disrespect towards subordinates at the same time. It’s just two separate things – plain and simple.

Essentially, being a respectful, empathetic and “great” leader, is a personal philosophy that can shape how you view life, the actions you take, the reactions you have and the standard by which you judge yourself. Most importantly, it provides a moral framework for other leaders in your organisation to lead by. So be part of the solution by first acknowledging your own human flaws and biases. 

When reached out to airasia regarding the video and the open letter from an Allstar, the following was airasia’s response:

airasia remains committed to supporting diversity and equal rights and takes all feedback of this nature very seriously. We promptly reviewed the situation and have already addressed the matter directly. We sincerely apologise to everyone affected and will ensure it won’t happen again.”

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