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The price M’sians pay to prop up ailing Proton

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | Proton, both car and company, have been a problem from day one. It should have been resolved three decades ago but has been allowed to snowball to epic proportions. Even the current search for a foreign strategic partner (FSP) appears bogged down.

That’s because till today, in the midst of negotiations to find a FSP, there is an ingrained reluctance to surrender control to bring in the technological expertise, business acumen and international standing to turn Proton around. If this transigence does not evaporate, then Proton will not have a deal.

That prolongs the suffering of Malaysians who since 1985, when the first Proton Saga rolled off the plant in Shah Alam, are paying much higher prices for cars, sometimes two or three times the price in other countries, because of protective barriers. According to my calculations, this could have amounted to as high as RM360 billion that car buyers have sacrificed in duties to the government and subsidies to manufacturers.

I have used estimated sales of some 12 million vehicles between 1985 and 2016 of which some four million vehicles sold were Protons. I have estimated, conservatively, that the average price per vehicle was RM30,000 higher because of protective barriers. Multiply this by 12 million vehicles for RM360 billion. You may disagree with the exact figure but there can be little doubt that the order of magnitude is in the hundreds of billions of ringgit.

If it was purely a question of business, Proton would have been sorted out a long time ago. But like many things in this country, it became an issue of national and even Malay pride, local capability and capacity, and one man’s plain old-fashioned stubbornness in the face of overwhelming evidence that it could not work.

Proton, then controlled by sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Bhd, was about to sign a deal with Germany’s Volkswagen in 2007 when the deal was jettisoned days before the signing by intense lobbying to then-prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Among the lobbyists were said to be then-international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz and those associated with former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose “brainchild” Proton is.

Then as now, Proton’s problems are well-known - lack of technical knowhow to produce reliable vehicles cheaply and insufficient production to benefit from economies of scale and develop new, viable models - two factors which feed off each other to make things progressively worse.

The only thing which helped to produce profit in the past were high tariff barriers and rebadged vehicles from manufacturers such as Mitsubishi in the early years and Honda in the later years with little more than assembly involved.

What has Proton to offer? Mainly two things. One, excess production capacity which means there is little lead time to production. Two, access to the 10-member 623-million-people Asean market whose member nations have largely dismantled discriminatory tax barriers for cars among themselves - except for Malaysia which imposes a thinly disguised discriminatory excise duty based on “local” content.

The solution is simple and straightforward. Give a competent foreign partner majority stake and control of the manufacturing operations at a reasonable price. Try and maintain control of domestic sales and marketing. That is as much as one can hope for - the operation is losing money by the bucketloads and the outlook is ominous to say the least.

Failed Proton’s arch rival Perodua, also a national car project, is succeeding. Why? Perodua has access to technology from Daihatsu which in turn is owned by Toyota - its cars are therefore much more reliable than Proton’s. Not many people know this but Perodua’s manufacturing is majority foreign-owned while sales and marketing is majority owned by local interests.

But even now, when it has its back against the wall and some RM1.5 billion in support loans from the federal government to keep it going meantime, Proton is balking...

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