Tokyo (AFP) – Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday floated the possibility of a national car project, despite the problems of a similar endeavour started during his previous term decades ago.
“We need to go back to the idea of a national car,” he told a Tokyo press conference on his first foreign trip since his shock election last month.
“Our ambition is to start another national car, perhaps with some help from our partners in Southeast Asia… we want to access the world market,” he said earlier, at a forum in Tokyo.
The national car has a troubled history in Malaysia, which from 1983 produced the Proton as part of then-premier Mahathir’s ambitious national industrialisation plan.
The brand had a reputation for unimaginative models and shoddy quality and saw its popularity wane over the years in the face of stiff competition from foreign models.
It 2017 its parent company, Malaysian conglomerate DRB-HICOM sold a 49.9 percent stake to Chinese auto giant Geely, which is seeking to turn Proton around.
Mahathir appeared to brush aside that history on Monday, saying Malaysia would “seek support and expertise from other countries” in looking once again to produce its own cars.
He said Malaysia had “most of the skills and technologies in regard to the design and production of a new car” thanks to two decades of cooperation with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors.
“However there are certain parts of a car which are extremely expensive to develop. We will want to source some of those expensive parts from other countries, including of course from Japan.”
– ‘Not a good idea’ –
The Malaysian government cut its links with Proton in 2012, when the country’s sovereign wealth fund sold its stake to DRB-HICOM, but the company has continued to struggle.
The prospect of Malaysia taking another tilt at launching a new national car was met with scepticism by analysts and the public.
“Given the current global industry landscape… it’s not a good idea,” Yeah Kim Leng, a professor of economics at Malaysia’s Sunway University Business School, told AFP.
“It’s a highly globalised market now, and unless you have a deep market (access), the technology and product capability, it would be difficult to compete.”
Twitter user Emir Izat said Proton’s shortcomings should “be a lesson” for Mahathir, adding: “Hopefully this national car project gets scrapped.”
While there are still many Protons on the roads in Malaysia, their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years, with European and Japanese models rapidly overtaking them.
Another Malaysian carmaker Perodua, which produces compact vehicles, has also struggled due to the growing competition.
Mahathir served as chairman of Proton until 2016, and his continued involvement in the firm drew criticism from then-prime minister Najib Razak, who was defeated in last month’s election.
In 2016 the government approved a bailout package worth $384 million for the struggling company but warned it would not continue to throw money at the firm.