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The impact Proton had on me

POSTED BY admin ON 12 July 2018

By YS Chan

After Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad disclosed that he plans to set up another national car project during a dialogue session at the 24th Nikkei Conference in Tokyo on June 11, the comments on its viability have been fast and furious.

I do not wish to add what have already been expressed but would like to share how Proton had impacted my life over the past 36 years

The first National Car Project was announced in 1982 and in October the same year, Budget 1983 was presented to Parliament, with road tax increased to an astronomical level.

For a company-owned 3-litre diesel or 5-litre petrol engine car under private registration, road tax was increased to RM36,000 a year, while it remained at 12 sen per cubic centimeter for petrol engines and 44 sen for diesel engines for limousine taxis.

As diesel engines were taxed four times more than diesel and company-owned vehicles doubled that of individually-owned, many diesel engines of the Mercedes 300D model were replaced with petrol engines, with some ownership transferred from companies to individuals.

Many luxury cars with large engines were licensed under limousine taxis to take advantage of cheap road tax at only RM600 per year for 5-litre petrol engines or RM1,320 for 3-litre diesel engines.

The national car project had already distorted the motor industry and associated businesses even before the first Proton Saga was rolled out in 1985. This so-called national car was nothing more than a rebadged Mitsubishi assembled in Malaysia.

Taxes and duties for other locally-assembled makes were raised considerably. The Proton Saga became popular not because of higher quality but lower pricing. But cabbies preferred the Nissan Sunny 1.3 until the minimum engine size for taxis was raised to 1.5 litre, benefitting the Proton Saga 1.5.

Malaysia went through a recession in the mid-1980s but started to pick up from 1988 followed by rapid growth until the Asian Financial crisis in 1997. The period from 1988 to 1997 was the golden decade for Malaysia.

By the time the Proton Wira was launched in 1993, there were long waiting lists for Proton models, including the Iswara. I should know as I was operating car rental business and would place orders for 50 units at a time with Edaran Otomobil Nasional (EON), then the sole distributor for most Proton models.

While many individual buyers had to pay “under table” money to Proton salesmen to speed up delivery of their new cars, I got them faster than many EON branches and dealers. Many naïve customers waited a long time after placing their orders with dealers given low quotas.

In 1997, I sold surplus cars from my rental fleet at prices higher than what was paid to EON, meaning used cars were fetching higher prices than new. EON made a killing in the market by adding loads of accessories, which gave them more profits than selling the basic car.

EON salesmen too enjoyed lucrative commissions by earning one percent per year for hire-purchase loans taken by car buyers, which could amount to RM1,500 for a RM30,000 loan over five years. Interest rates were at the ceiling of 10 percent flat annually.

From 1990 to 2000, I was an examiner for practical tests trainee tourist guides had to pass to get their licence. They are required to describe what they see on board a moving tour bus, and a favourite would be pointing out many vehicles on the road are national cars.

After the last candidate, I would correct their mistakes so that they are not perpetuated as truths and shared with tourists.  Malaysians may equate national cars as Protons, but foreigners would be perplexed upon hearing national cars.

National is a well-known Japanese brand but this electrical and electronic giant manufacturer is not known for producing cars. It is more correct to say that Proton is a Malaysian car, just like they are Japanese, Korean and German cars.

The days of using airlines and cars as flag carriers for a country are long over. Nearly all the British makes are foreign-owned. Since 2010, Volvo Cars has been majority owned by the Geely Holding Group, a Chinese multinational automotive manufacturing company.

Although manufacturing plants are located in China and Sweden, local radio advertisements remind listeners that Volvo is “made by Sweden”, which is rather odd, as it is normal to say made in Sweden or made by Swedish.

Likewise, it would be tough marketing another national car, and the second national car Perodua are rebadged Daihatsu models mainly made in Malaysia. Other rebadged models assembled in Malaysia but did not enjoy “national car” status were Naza (Kia) and Inokom (Hyundai) models.

From 2004 to 2010, I drove a Proton Iswara taxi fitted with Mitsubishi engine running on both petrol and natural gas. The engine may be ancient but hardy and reliable, unlike Campro engines fitted in Proton Exora that often suffered burnt valves.

The average fuel cost for my taxi was 6.5 sen per km and maintenance 3.5 sen per km. Since 2010, I have been using a Perodua Myvi 1.3 with incredible fuel consumption and low maintenance. It was no surprise that the Myvi remained the best -selling model since its launch in 2005.

YS Chan is a veteran in the public transport industry, working his way up the ranks from an apprentice mechanic to setting up the fleet of tour buses and limousines for Mayflower Travel and Tours. He went on to become his own boss as a limo and taxi driver and currently, he’s a certified trainer in the tourism industry.