Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has weighed in on bribery allegations around AirAsia Group’s aircraft orders from Airbus.

“Usually when the [Malaysian] government buys equipment, we would often ask [the manufacturer] for an offset. Meaning, if we were to buy an aircraft, we would ask for an offset,” Mahathir told reporters at a press event held on 6 February.

“If we’re able to acquire something because we buy them at a high price, why can’t we accept [the offset]? If the money goes into our pocket, that is corruption. But if the money is used for other purposes, it is [considered] offset.”

Court documents released from a UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) probe into Airbus detailed allegations that two AirAsia executives – both “key decision makers” at AirAsia and long-haul operation AirAsia X – were “rewarded” through a sports sponsorship, in respect of an order for 180 aircraft.

While AirAsia has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, founders Tony Fernandes and Kamarudin Meranun have volunteered to step aside as group chief executive and group chairman, respectively, for two months to facilitate an independent probe.

Back in 2003, Fernandes successfully lobbied for Mahathir to propose open skies agreements with neighbouring Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, a move that was instrumental to AirAsia’s success.

Mahathir was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, before beginning his current term in May 2018.

In recent years, local media reports suggest that AirAsia is one of the carriers involved in proposals to turn around ailing national carrier, Malaysia Airlines. This may have roots in a failed share swap between both carrier groups that was scrapped in 2012.

In a September 2019 interview with The Edge Malaysia, Fernandes expressed his lack of interest in acquiring Malaysia Airlines.