TOKYO - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday (June 11) that he aims to have a new national car company, given that Chinese automaker Geely has acquired a stake in Proton.
"The national car must be owned by Malaysians," he told the 24th Future of Asia Conference in Tokyo organised by Nikkei Inc. "The company has been sold to Chinese company, it is no longer a national car."
He added that his ambition was to start another national car - in collaboration with other partners in Asia including Thailand, Japan, China and South Korea.
"I believe we have the capacity to produce good quality cars which are sellable throughout the world," he said. "We want access to the world market."
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the forum, Tun Dr Mahathir said the new car company could capture a piece of the global market by making vehicles equipped with advanced technologies.
"We hope of course we would be able to produce a new car in compliance with the Euro-5 or Euro-6 emission standards so that we can have access to the world market," he told Nikkei.
State-owned Proton was founded in 1983 during an industrialisation push in Dr Mahathir's first term, and it commanded the lion's share of the domestic market a decade later. In a deal brokered last year under the previous administration of Najib Razak, Geely bought 49.9 per cent of the struggling carmaker, marking the Chinese automaker's first push into South-east Asia.
Dr Mahathir is on his first overseas trip since he was re-elected as Prime Minister of Malaysia last month. He has been a regular fixture at the conference, which was where he first hinted last year that he "would step in as PM if required".
While he acknowledged the benefits of free trade in a wide-ranging keynote address, he also said that its current principles would cripple smaller economies like Malaysia. And this was why his government is calling for a review of the terms of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade deal, he said, stressing that Malaysia "is not completely against the TPP".
"It is like playing golf, you need a handicap. The weakest players will get the largest handicaps so in that way the competition will be much fairer," he said. "It is the same with trade."
Hence, he said the protectionist policies that have been propagated by United States President Donald Trump were not justified.
But for smaller countries that require more protection, he said, some form of protection or consideration to the weaknesses in their markets would be warranted.
"Different countries should be treated differently when it comes to free trade," he said. "We have to recognise there are infant industries that are just beginning to grow. We need to have some privileges, we are not in the position to compete with the great trading and manufacturing nations of the world."
He also mooted a resurrection of the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) regional free trade zone that he first proposed in 1997. The proposal included the 10 Asean countries, and roped in China, Japan and South Korea.
"In the past we were unable to do this because of American objections," he noted. "But now that America seems to be isolationist, they are not in the position to demand that we not form the EAEC."
When asked how this would compare to the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - which involves the 13 EAEC countries as well as Australia, India and New Zealand - he said he was looking at a "more expanded version" that will also rope in Central Asian countries.
In the EAEC, however, he said: "The smaller, weaker countries should have a bigger say in its organisation, and of course, even China would not want to reject the views of the majority."
Dr Mahathir, who has not named a Foreign Minister to his Cabinet, first served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. In 1982, he launched the Look East Policy that urged Malaysians to adopt East Asian work ethics, management and other policies for commercial and industrial expansion.
He has criticised ousted former prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib, for leaning heavily onto China, and has said he will review a series of Chinese projects to put a lid on national debt.
He said that he hopes the Look East Policy can still be a basis for Malaysians to "adopt the Japanese culture of hard work, diligence and strong feeling of shame in the event of poor quality", which he believes could ensure Malaysia does as well as Japan, South Korea and China.
But he stressed on Monday: "Our foreign policy is still the same. We are friendly to all regardless of ideologies, and we want to ensure that we keep on trading.
"We want to have access to all the markets of the world - that is what is important to us, because we depend on trading in order to grow the country."
Meanwhile, asked during the question-and-answer session how long he would remain as prime minister as he looked healthy, Dr Mahathir said he is willing to continue beyond two years that was previously stated, if that is what Malaysians wanted.
"I'm willing to serve, and if that is the wish of the people, for as long as they want me - but of course I don't know how long I will last. In two years I will be 95 years old, I am already the oldest PM in the world.
"That will be a record if I reach 95 and remain PM, but serving the country is all I care about and if that is what people want me to do, I will accede to their wishes."
This was the second time Dr Mahathir had indicated that he might stay beyond two years instead of sticking to the initial decision, agreed within Malaysia's governing coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), to pass the prime ministership to PH co-leader Anwar Ibrahim after that period.
In an interview with Sinar Harian published on Saturday (June 9), Dr Mahathir had said: "It (the two years) is a suggestion, but we are not fixed on this. It could be earlier, or even later. The priority is to return the nation's wealth and build our economy to become more sustainable."
But he did reiterate in the interview that Datuk Seri Anwar will be his successor.