Carmaker Proton clarifies remarks by CEO after charges of racism

49.9 per cent of loss-making Proton was sold to China carmaker Zhejiang Geely Holdings Group for RM460.3 million in June 2017 to try turn its fortunes around. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia carmaker Proton has clarified controversial remarks by its new CEO from China that Hokkiens who bought its cars would "enjoy our most preferential prices ever", after a Malay rights group pounced on these as "racism".

Started as Malaysia's first national car in 1983, 49.9 per cent of loss-making Proton was sold to China carmaker Zhejiang Geely Holdings Group for RM460.3 million (S$150 million) in June last year to try turn its fortunes around. Geely owns the Volvo car brand.

The remaining 50.1 per cent stake in Proton will still be held by conglomerate DRB-Hicom, which also distributes other cars in Malaysia.

Malaysia's Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau reported last week that CEO Li Chunrong of Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Sdn Bhd, Proton's manufacturing arm, announcing the discount at a dinner with local Hokkien businessmen.

"Any Malaysian of Fujian origin who purchases Proton cars will enjoy our most preferential prices ever," he was quoted as saying at a dinner on Jan 12 with local Hokkien businessmen last week.

The comments came at a sensitive time as Proton, whose employees are largely Malay, was just taken over by the Chinese car company, amid intial concerns that the Proton brand will be killed. Geely has said it will continue with the Proton name.

Additionally, there is continuing debate in Malaysia over the fast-expanding presence of mainland China firms, from property projects to infrastructure works to owning power plants.

Proton was started by then-premier Tun Mahathir Mohamad, selling in its early years Mitsubishi cars that were rebadged with the Proton brand.

Abdul Rahman Mat Dali , vice-president of prominent Malay rights group Isma, said in response: "Displaying racism after acquiring the biggest share in Proton. I am worried they will do all sorts of other things towards Proton."

Mr Abdul Rahman on the group's website Ismaweb questioned the rationale in offering the discount exclusively to members of the Hokkien association instead of all Malaysians.

Other social media users also commented on the issue, asking why car sales should be carried out along racial lines.

But Proton on Thursday clarified that it has a special discount policy for corporate sales and fleet sales customers.

"It is a common business practice in the automotive industry to offer corporate sales discounts based on bulk purchase and fleet sales.

"Therefore, the special offer given to the Federation of Hokkien Associations of Malaysia forms part of the special corporate sales arrangement for fleet sales customers," it said in a statement.

The managing director of Malaysia's second national carmaker Perodua, Aminar Rashid Salleh, when asked about the issue on Friday (Jan 19), said when organisations and companies bought Perodua cars in bulk, the automotive firm provided them with a "package deal".

"We are in business. We do fleet sales, we do government sales, direct sales... and there are people who buy in bulk," he was quoted by Malaysiakini news site as saying.

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