NICHOLAS IONIDES SINGAPORE Investors in Malaysia Airlines (MAS) are celebrating the confirmation that chairman and majority owner Tajudin Ramli is nearing a deal to sell his company's entire stake in the carrier.

Tajudin, who is also chairman and main shareholder of aviation holding company Naluri, has ended long-running speculation that he aims to sell his29% holding.

He says he has been forced into the decision because he is "saddled with personal debts" close to a billion ringgit ($263 million). Many have pressed for the tycoon's departure for some time, saying the loss-making carrier needs new management. Investors applauded the news, pushing MAS' share price to its highest level in years.

The Malaysian Government - already a major shareholder through various investment vehicles - plans to buy Naluri's MAS shares and then to sell a minority holding to a foreign carrier. Swissair parent SAirGroup, Dutch carrier KLM and Australia's Qantas Airways are all said to be interested.

Tajudin, a former merchant banker and friend of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, took control of MAS in 1994. He says that after selling the MAS stake, he will focus on telecommunications and multimedia businesses.

MAS desperately needs cash to reduce its sizeable US-denominated debts.Tajudin says he was hit by a "double whammy" in MAS - the regional economic downturn and rising aviation fuel costs.

"If I don't have money to put in more money, that is not because Malaysia Airlines is sick, it's Tajudin Ramli," he told the state-run Bernama news agency. "I don't have the cash."

"The airline needs an injection and the reality is that we [Naluri] haven't got the financial resources required for it to expand. It is not good for anyone to delay or keep holding out," he added.

Tajudin and the government are known to have been at odds over the price Naluri will be paid for its MAS shares. Tajudin is thought to be asking 8 ringgit per share, compared with the market level at the end of November of about 3.7 ringgit. That level is well above the average trading price over the past year.

Naluri, formerly Malaysia Helicopter Services, paid 8 ringgit per share in 1994. Many believe it will ultimately be forced to accept between 6 ringgit and 7 ringgit per share.

Source: Airline Business