Goodbye Proton, hello Geely!


Goodbye Proton, hello Geely!
By Zan Azlee

“Ehh… tengok tu! Proton Saga lah!”

“Ha! Mana? Mana?”

“Hahaha! Mana ada! Tipu aje! Satu kosong!”

That was the common prank that was pulled in school way back in the mid-1980s. Someone would pretend as if a Proton Saga had driven pass and everyone else would be tricked into turning around to catch a glimpse of the then rather rare car.

I was probably around seven or eight years old and was in lower primary school when the Proton Saga was launched. It was a big deal. There were jingles on the radio and video clips on television.

The teachers in school would talk about it in class and show us newspaper articles. The car even ended up in our school history textbook and it was a proud moment for Malaysia and Malaysians indeed. I knew my friends and I were filled with pride.

My parents bought the car when it first came out. It was a silver Proton Saga and what I remember most about it was that it had a very sophisticated and technologically advanced digital clock with bright green lights on the dashboard.

I can’t remember if that car was any good. I was too young to understand how a car works, and like I said, the clock was what impressed me the most. But my parents used that car for quite a while, so I guess the first-generation Proton wasn’t so bad.

Later on, when I graduated from university and started working, the first car I bought was a Proton Satria. I have to admit that I didn’t buy the car because I liked it. I bought it because it was affordable based on my starting salary as a fresh graduate.

And, as everyone in Malaysia is most probably aware of, that is how the local car industry has been positioned to succeed. Basically, the government makes sure that foreign cars are more expensive than local cars by imposing high import duties.

The Proton Satria that I had didn’t last very long. The interior of the car started to go first with the interior plastic trim peeling and breaking off. Then, the power windows went. Finally, the radiator stopped working and that’s when I had to get rid of the car.

We hear stories all the time from people who have owned Proton cars. But of course, these are anecdotal evidence and we can’t really conclude that Proton makes bad cars. But we can say that this is the most common general perception of the public.

I have the opinion that Proton is also the reason why the public transportation system in Malaysia has always been lacking. The government wanted to ensure that the local automotive industry succeeded so the all the infrastructure built was to encourage car ownership.

So now that we want to develop and improve our public transportation system, it becomes much very expensive and difficult because the cities in Malaysia were not built and designed for public transportation.

Bailouts

As the years went by, and although they kept on producing newer models and pushing out more units, Proton started to fail as a business entity and they were not making profits. They were making net losses of hundreds of ringgits in the last few years alone.

The government did not give up and last year, they granted Proton a RM1.5 billion bailout. The condition for the bailout is that the company conceives a turnaround plan and seek a foreign partner to help them out.

So this week, Proton has finally found that partner in the form of Geely, a Chinese automaker, which also owns the Swedish-based Volvo. They bought over a 49% stake of Proton, which is a huge stake, although DRB-Hicom still holds the majority 51%.

The sentiments in Malaysia are mixed. Many people are saying that this could probably achieve Proton’s objectives of a turnaround. This could be possible seeing that the partnership could open market potential in the rest of Asia.

But for the most parts, the anecdotal evidence from the public, or the perception, is that Proton has failed and now they are selling out to a foreign entity. And no one is more vocal about that then former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In his blog, Chedet.cc, he says that he is sad to see his ‘brainchild’ is no longer Malaysian anymore. He definitely sees the partnership with Geely as a failure on the part of Proton in maintaining as a national entity.

But at the end of the day, Proton is still a business entity and yes, it is a failing business entity. If this is the only way out, then I guess beggars can’t be choosers. Maybe the old joke from the 1980s will make a comeback.

“Ehh… tengok tu! Proton Saga lah!”

“Ha!! Mana? Mana?”

“Hahaha! Mana ada! Tipu aje! Satu kosong!”

But instead of Malaysians being excited that there is something new that we can be proud of, we’re just excited that there still is a Proton on the road.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.Com]

Here’s a short film I made about Proton and Perodua way back in 2003:

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!

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