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 ended up being privatised, with Chinese auto giant Geely taking a major stake in 2017.
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.”
Malaysia’s state investment arm sold its stake in Proton to a local car distributor and importer in 2012, but the auto firm continued to struggle, despite several high-profile tie-ups with major automakers.
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.
Last year China’s Geely bought a 49.9 percent stake in Proton after a bidding process that saw companies including French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen express interest.