Tun Mahathir Mohamad recalled one occasion when, as Malaysia’s then prime minister in March 2003, he went on a three-day state visit to Brazil to promote bilateral ties and trade between the two nations.
He had previously visited South America’s largest economy in 1991.
He remembered fondly this particular visit, especially his trip to Sao Paulo where he swung by the Embraer factory, the home of the aircraft manufacturer, at Sao Jose dos Campos.
Recounting the tour, the PM said: “I was impressed. I suggested to Ananda (Krishnan, Malaysia’s richest man), to take a stake in it (Embraer). But it didn’t happen…”
There are a few things in life Malaysia’s then fourth and now seventh premier has a knack for: cars, horses and planes, not necessarily in that order.
On 26 March 2019 Mahathir has another chance to come face-to-face with Embraer, this time in the form of the E190-E2 – the latest iteration of Embraer’s popular E2 jet aircraft – when he officially opens the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition 2019 (LIMA2019).
The premier also happens to be the Member of Parliament (MP) for Langkawi. It is understood he is looking forward to see first hand the Embraer E190-E2 with a shark face painted on its nose, along with other aircraft on static display at the show.
Politics and the art of buying aircraft
However, people close to the PM say whilst he has a deep and keen interest in aviation products, his utmost priority is the interest of Malaysia, chiefly the country’s economic and political benefits.
Those familiar with Mahathir said he was dismayed by the decision of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem. Malaysia had strongly protested the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
For the record, Malaysia is ASEAN’s largest trading partner for Brazil; Brazilian exports to Malaysia is worth about to USD283 million.
Any decision that Malaysian government-linked companies (GLCs) make on acquiring or purchasing products made by countries seen as supportive of Israel are scrutinised by the prime minister’s office given Mahathir’s hardline stance on the Jewish state.
It isn’t just Brazil’s diplomatic move in Israel the premier has a beef with.
Malaysia has threatened the European Union, too, over oil palm, specifically the EU’s discrimination over oil palm products.
Mahathir said Malaysia could opt for Chinese- or Russian-made fighter jets to replace its ageing air force fleet instead of France’s Rafale or the Eurofighter Typhoon .
Malaysia is the world’s second biggest palm oil exporter after Indonesia. Revenue from palm oil amounted to around MYR80 billion (USD19.6 billion) in 2018.
In fact, Mahathir has written to French president Emmanuel Macron, urging the latter to reconsider the move to limit palm oil products failing which Malaysia would restrict purchases of some French products.
Malaysia is unlikely to restrict purchases of commercial aircraft from Airbus since both flag carrier Malaysia Airlines and discount carrier AirAsia are heavily dependent on Airbus planes.
If any manufacturer can claim to be a big contributor to Malaysia then it is Airbus. Each Airbus aircraft type that flies has at least one part made in Malaysia.
The RMAF has four Airbus A400M airlifters, and has the region’s largest dedicated A400M hangar at Subang.
In financial terms, Airbus investments in Malaysia were worth some USD400 million in 2018, and will rise to USD550 million in 2023.
Mahathir himself has alluded to regional aircraft for some of the local airlines to consider, including the Airbus A220 family and the Mitsubishi MRJ, which the CEO of AirAsia said he is considering buying.
Airbus is the largest exhibitor at LIMA 2019. It is showcasing aircraft (A320 in AirAsia livery as well as an A400M military plane and a H225 helicopter in Royal Malaysian Air Force colours).
AirAsia is the largest buyer of Airbus A320 planes and has placed more orders for the A330neo and A350 widebody aircraft.
LIMA 2019 will see exhibitors from many countries, including China, France, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea and Russia.