The Legend of ‘MADAM NO-NONSENSE’ : An Aviation Pioneer
By Ilyas Alex Chan
Ilyas is contributing story writer at The WiAA Project
25 years in the Air Force. 15 years in Business Aviation. Now in her sixties and still going strong. No wonder she is called a Legend and an Aviation Pioneer.
Meet Major (Retired) Rasaletchumi Ratnasingam.
Most people call her Major Rasa. Her subordinates respectfully call her Ma’am. In fact, her bosses also call her Ma’am from time to time.
Such is the respect among her peers for the Legend and Aviation Pioneer. In the Air Force and in General Aviation circles, she has earned the undisputed title of ‘Madam No-Nonsense’ and ‘The Iron Lady’.
She is the second woman to be commissioned as an Officer in the Tentera Udara Di-Raja Malaysia (TUDM) or Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), and the first to command a Joint Air Traffic Control Center ( JATCC) in Subang.
Perhaps, that is why she has such longevity as an Aviator in Malaysia and why many aviation industry players want her to be part of their team.
This is her story.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Major Rasa was born in Selangor, before a part of it was delineated as Kuala Lumpur on the map. Major Rasa’s father was a Technical Assistant in the old Telecoms outfit while her mother was a housewife. She has 2 brothers and 1 sister.
Young Rasa completed her Primary studies in Gurney Road School and her Secondary education was at the Pudu English Girls School.
After her MCE, she taught at a primary school in Jalan Kuantan. However, soon she realized teaching was not her forte and decided to venture into a more meaningful and challenging career.
Then came a life-changing event when an advertisement caught her eyes.
THE CAREER OF A TUDM / RMAF PIONEER
In 1974, the TUDM / RMAF ran advertisements in the local newspapers to recruit women into the Air Force. This was a first for the Air Force and in true Major Rasa style, she said ‘what the heck!’ and dived right into it.
She recalled there were many applicants, but only 15 women were shortlisted for Officers’ recruitment. These shortlisted officers were further reduced to 3 women and subsequently to only 2 women officers. No guesses that young Rasa made it to the final shortlist.
The 2 shortlisted women and 32 men were sent for Basic Military Training in Alor Setar.
On completion, the men were sent to Pilot Training School, while the 2 women were commissioned as Air Force Officers with the rank of Leftenant Muda (Lt. Muda) in 1975 and sent to the Sungei Besi Air Base for Operational work while awaiting their Air Traffic Control (ATC) Courses.
In the same year, Lt.Muda Rasa was sent to the DCA College at Subang International Airport to attend a course on Air Traffic Control (ATC) Course. It is worth to mention at this point that the other woman Officer who made it to the final shortlist withdrew from service, thus leaving Lt. Muda Rasa as the sole woman Officer in the Air Force then.
In 1977, Lt. Muda Rasa was promoted to a full Lieutenant. In line with this, the Air Force sent her for further Air Traffic training at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) East Sale in Victoria, Australia. On her return she was posted to the RMAF Sungei Besi’s Aircraft Control Squadron.
After her stint in RMAF Sungai Besi, she was again sent to RAAF East Sale for a Basic Radar Course and at the Department of Transport (DOT) College in Melbourne where at her instructors being impressed with her knowledge, understanding and performance offered her a position in their department which she declined.
On her return to Malaysia, Lieutenant Rasa was posted to the TUDM Kuantan Base where she planted her roots for five years. During her TUDM Kuantan years, Lieutenant Rasa was promoted to Captain.
She was also sent overseas again for further training – this time to Royal Air Force (RAF) Shrewsbury in England for her Aerial Radar Course.
Upon returning home, Captain Rasa decided to pursue her legal studies on a part time basis. She had successfully completed her first year degree in law, unfortunately due to heavy workload and commitments her passion in law had to take a back seat.
A highlight of her illustrious career came in 1984 when she was selected to be the TUDM’s Detachment Commander (Officer Exchange Program) in Singapore.
Based at the LORADS Civil Military Complex, Captain Rasa worked at the RSAF Joint Air Traffic Control Centre (JATCC) at Changi. She lived at the Malaysian Navy Complex at Woodlands during her 3 years on detachment in Singapore. What an honour indeed!
On her return posting to Kuala Lumpur, she then had several stints and she was then promoted to Major and took up a post as a Project Officer TUDM Subang & TUDM Gong Kedah, overseeing the setting up of ATC Towers and related Offices. She also had a stint at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as Staff Officer 2.
In 1998, Major Rasa was given the honour of becoming the Commanding Officer at the Joint Air Traffic Control Centre (JATCC) in Subang.
Major Rasa formally retired from service in the Air Force in 2001…. a pioneering military career spanning 25 years.
QUALITIES FOR 25 YEARS OF SUCCESS IN THE AIR FORCE
When asked about how she made it the Air Force for so long, Major Rasa was coy about telling her stories. She wanted to respect military protocols and not overstep her boundaries.
However, several endearing qualities came out of her stories to nail down what made Major Rasa…. Major Rasa !
“No Nonsense In The Air!” was one of her main operating maxims. She was tough on aircrew and ground staff alike where airfield operations and discipline were concerned.
Legend has it that once a Telecoms telephone went flying through a glass wall in the ATC when Major Rasa blew her top at an error committed by one of her subordinates. Incidentally, she was not asked to pay for the damage to the glass wall - or the telephone, for that matter. Probably nobody dared to ask.
“Rules, Regulations and Procedures before Seniority” was another philosophy that Major Rasa adopted and practiced in her daily routines. If there were potential Safety compromises existing, she will put her foot down on flights taking off – even if it meant saying “No” to a Senior ranking Officer.
Her uncompromising principles earned her numerous praises and accolades from fellow comrades and also no reprimand from her seniors for such stubbornness. On the contrary, she was seen as a role model as opposed to those choosing to bend the rules. This probably emboldened her to say “No” to her bosses even more….!
She strongly lived by these credos in the Air Force, and thereafter duly carried it into her civilian life after her retirement. Subang did not stand a chance against this Legend.
Today, if you were to meet with veteran ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen from the Air Force in and around Subang International Airport (there are plenty of them around!), chances are they will have stories to tell about the fearsome Captain Rasa or Major Rasa. But they will always tell these stories with a twinkle in their eyes, and not with a grudge in their souls.
MAJOR RASA’s CIVILIAN CAREER
It never occurred to Major Rasa that retirement at the age of 50 usually meant going off into the sunset realm and “shake legs” for the rest of your life.
She was immediately drafted into a procurement job at a local company that supplied the Armed Forces with spare parts. She did not stay for long, though. The smell of jet fuel was too alluring for an aviator like her.
Major Rasa joined cargo-carriers Transmile as an Aviation Safety & Security Inspector and subsequently as Manager of Operations Control at the Old Cargo Complex at Subang International Airport.
In 2005, after more than 2 years at Transmile, Capt.Ernest Kunasingh courted Major Rasa to join his company D’Nest Aviation, a general aviation company. Major Rasa became D’Nest’s Flight Operations Manager, setting up their Flight Operations Room as well as managing the Ground Handling activities. Shortly after, Major Rasa was promoted to Senior Manager.
In 2012, Sapura Aero bought D’Nest’s assets in Subang. Major Rasa was absorbed into Sapura Aero as an Operations Manager for their Ground Handling unit AeroHandlers. Since then, Major Rasa has risen the ranks at Sapura Aero. She is currently the COO at AeroHandlers.
Despite today being almost two decades since her retirement from the Air Force, Major Rasa has not slowed down one bit. All these have lent credence to her Legendary status in Subang, from the Air Force days to Business Aviation these days.
Men and women many years younger have not been able to keep up with her, and this is testament to her true grit, perseverance and endurance in whatever career path she has chosen to be in. Of course, being super stubborn and head strong is her best all-time quality!
Hence, it is no coincidence that industry peers call Major Rasa – with much adoration and respect – “Madam No-Nonsense”. It’s a permanent title for her.
BUSINESS AVIATION, IN THE EYES OF MAJOR RASA
According to Major Rasa, amongst her most significant accomplishments at Sapura Aero was in 2015 when she led AeroHandlers to be audited and awarded the International Standards for Business Aircraft Handling (IS-BAH). This is an internationally certified award given by the industry-governing International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) who are based in Montreal, Canada and who are permanent observers at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
She is a strong advocate for taking on international aviation accreditation because she believes it pushes Malaysian companies to follow and comply to industry best practices in the interest of Aviation Safety. She laments that no local ground handler in Business or General Aviation has thus far followed in AeroHandlers’ footsteps to achieve these accreditations.
She is of the view that if more industry players follow suit it would further enhance the industry. Even though it may potentially increase competition for AeroHandlers, it is for the greater good of the Business Aviation industry in Malaysia. The more the merrier!
Major Rasa also highlighted that operating in the Business Aviation industry here has been particularly challenging over the years due to the regulatory environment.
However, she believes that the current effort by the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) to implement dedicated regulations for Business Aviation and General Aviation by adopting and benchmarking ICAO’s Annex 6 Part II and Annex 6 Part III regulations are a crucial step towards the industry’s survival and growth. She believes that with proper regulations, there will come proper oversight and proper budget and manpower resources being allocated by CAAM towards regulating the industry.
Major Rasa also pointed out that there seems to be accelerated progress in the regulatory environment in 2020, in spite of major disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2020, CAAM launched the “Procedures for Ground Handling” document in its effort to enhance and regulate ground operations in Malaysian airports.
She admits that while there may be an attrition rate among some operators when the heavy hand of regulations come hitting hard on the industry players, she acknowledges this is the only way to weed out the proliferation of illegal operators be they ground handlers, charterers or maintenance companies.
FOR THE LADIES OUT THERE
The Aviation industry is constantly evolving as can be seen where the previously male-dominated industry has now begun to absorb more women into the industry. It is obvious and reflected in the employment rate today in various fields where women have had a fair share in the pie and this equation suggest that positive changes have definitely taken place.
“I trust the Aviation industry can do more where representation of women are concerned by opening up all fields of aviation and not only limiting to certain jobs”, says Major Rasa.
It is great to note that The WiAA Project, through its web platform, have encouraged more women to participate in Aviation as they embark on various projects. This platform exposes women to more activities so that they may have a wider spectrum of aviation careers to choose from.
Highlighting role models and their achievements are one way to encourage young women of today to take the leap in Aviation. By promoting and depicting various activities and featuring women in the Aviation industry, The WiAA Project helps to spur the interest to the young who are aspiring to take up a career in the industry.
True to her passion, Major Rasa affirms that mentoring and providing guidance is one of the ways of providing and enhancing knowledge to women to grow on their aviation careers and she encourages women senior leaders in the industry to take that up that role.
WHAT NEXT FOR MAJOR RASA
Despite her seniority, she does not see retirement in the near future. Instead, for her it’s only an “option” moving forward.
A religious devotee, Major Rasa always tries to spend a part of each day at the Temple. Since many years ago, she does her annual pilgrimage to India or Sri Lanka without fail. She recognizes where her strengths come from and she pay her dues there.
In the meantime and with her natural tendencies in leading, coaching and guiding subordinates who have been privileged to work for her and with her, she still has much of the fire and passion to continue hiring young interns to teach them and to whip them into shape. Passing the torch, in a way. If she can pass on the “No-Nonsense” credo, even better.
Major Rasa. The Legend.