The Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad said today that payments to offset high-value orders could not be considered bribes.
Mahathir was responding to questions from reporters on a controversial sponsorship deal the owners of Air Asia struck with plane maker Airbus.
Prosecutors alleged Airbus paid a bribe of $50m (£39m) through sponsorship of the now-defunct Caterham F1 team which was owned by Air Asia chief executive and Queens Park Rangers co-owner Tony Fernandes.
Fernandes and Air Asia executive chairman Datuk Kamarudin bin Meranun have stepped aside from their roles until the accusations are investigated. They both deny wrongdoing.
Mahathir said he would not comment on the accusations, but said in high-value deals it was common to ask for an offset.
“Often when governments buy equipment, we always ask for an offset…If we can get something because we buy something at a high price, why can’t we accept it?” he said.
“If the money we get is pocketed, that is corruption. But if that money is for a certain purpose, it would be an offset instead of a bribe. That’s my view,” he added.
Malaysian authorities have also said they are launching their own investigations into the SFO’s claims.
The allegations come as the Malaysian government evaluates a proposal from Air Asia to partner with struggling national carrier Malaysia Airlines.
Prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim said Air Asia would have to resolve the corruption case if the airline wanted to continue contending for a partnership.
“You can’t expect us to consider an entity, when allegations are still there. They have to clear that first to be fair, otherwise we’ll be seen to be complicit,” he said