The Tourism Minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz was being disingenuous when he called the national car, Proton, a “white elephant”, which the current government had inherited from former PM Mahathir.
Did Nazri crawl out of the Putrajaya woodwork, a few days ago, and only then notice that Proton was in trouble? Why did he keep quiet when Dr Mahathir was prime minister, after all he was the Minister for Entrepreneur Development, from 1999 to 2004? Dr Mahathir left in 2003.
If any blame should be apportioned, for the continuing failure of Proton, Nazri should blame Khazanah Berhad. This the same outfit, which acquired another Malaysian Golden Goose, in other words, Malaysian Airlines System (MAS).
Khazanah cannot look after its golden goose
Khazanah collected the eggs from the golden goose, demanded that it lay more, and never once thought about the goose’s wellbeing. What happened to MAS, is now happening to Proton.
Three decades earlier, there were calls for improvements to Proton. With the advent of social media, Nazri must have been aware of the rakyat’s criticisms of Proton flooding these social media networks. People complained about the window seals, the anti-rust coating and the power windows.
Malaysians living overseas, noticed that foreign Proton models were more sturdy and sported additional safety features. They claimed that the exported cars were cheaper than those in Malaysia.
Nazri’s outburst agaisnt Mahathir was in response to the former PM’s objections to Proton being sold to foreign interests. Nazri claimed that Proton was a failure, because the car company made continual requests for additional funding.
In one fell swoop, Nazri insulted the millions of low to middle income Malaysian families who would not have been able to enjoy car ownership, but for the Proton. Nazri has also neglected the hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who depend on Proton for a living. They work in related industries; suppliers, car workshops, garages, dealerships and as delivery men.
Proton could have been more efficient, so why did Nazri not deal with the problems, many years ago, rather than use these issues as ammunition, against Dr Mahathir?
Proton and the Civil Service
The problems in Proton are analogous to the problems in the civil service. Nazri, like the rakyat, is aware of them. High wages, and various benefits which cannot be sustained, because of the bleak outlook on the economy. Few have the political will to confront the problem.
In 2012, Dr Mahathir told Bloomberg TV, that when he launched Proton in 1983, Proton was doing relatively well, and in 2002, the year before he resigned, Proton had a 60 percent share of the car market. (I think it is about 30% today)
Dr Mahathir blamed Proton’s subsequent decline, on political interference, the failure of the government to collect import duties from car importers, and more importantly, the failure of the government to have a clear vision for Proton’s future.
Openly critical Tengku Mahaleel removed
The former PM was alluding to Proton’s decline after the Proton MD, Tengku Mahaleel Tengku Ariff was removed. Tengku Mahaleel had successfully accumulated cash reserves in excess of RM4 billion, and built a huge 150,000-unit plant in Tanjung Malim.
Other observers allege that Tengku Mahaleel’s removal was a direct result of his criticism of the AP system. With the emphasis on importing vehicles, there was a danger that Malaysia would become an automobile assembly hub, instead of an automotive manufacturing base.
These comments displeased the government, and after nine years at Proton, Tengku Mahaleel’s contract was terminated.
During Kahazanah’s guardianship of Proton, the billions of ringgits, which Tengku Mahaleel had carefully built, were depleted. Where did the money go? With Proton needing large cash injections, it is not surprisingly that it will be sold to anyone who shows a interest.
That is why Nazri’s outburst against Dr Mahathir, is not about Proton. It is about politics and the mismanagement of the country.