PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, BLOOMBERG) - Malaysians had mixed reactions to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's announcement that the government intends to launch a new national car company.
Speaking during a dialogue at the 24th Nikkei Conference on the Future of Asia on Monday (June 11), Tun Dr Mahathir said his new government is thinking of starting another national car, perhaps with an Asian country such as Thailand, South Korea or Japan as a partner.
This comes after Proton Holdings, the automaker he started in the 1980s during his first stint as premier, was privatised and a stake was later sold to a Chinese company.
Proton faltered over the years even with billions of dollars in grants and subsidies. It was taken private in 2012 by DRB-Hicom, a conglomerate controlled by Malaysian billionaire Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary. Last year, China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought a 49.9 per cent stake in Proton.
The proposal for another car company after Proton did not go down well with everyone, with some urging for more focus on public transport.
Within minutes of the news, someone named SK Teo created a petition titled "We should not have a national car at this point in time", which garnered five signatures within an hour.
Teo argued that more should be done to improve public transport and road conditions, but also asked for car import taxes to be reduced.
On Facebook, a Md Haris only had a gentle reminder to offer: "Country debt 1 trillion," referring to Malaysia's national debt which stands at RM1 trillion (S$335 billion).
Many more spoke up for the need to instead improve public transport for the people, with Kim Guan Chuan saying that the number of cars on the roads should be reduced.
"Every day, most of the roads are choked with cars, wasting time and money," he added.
Karthikeyan Rajamohan said the MRT3 rail transit project, which was put on hold, should be reconsidered instead of having a "Proton 2.0".
Noni Jelani questioned the wisdom of the proposed idea: "So this is the reason why he scrapped public transportation project. To make new car. Do we need this right now?"
Daljeet Kaur said "one failed national car" is more than enough proof that Malaysia does not need another one.
"We need proper public transport to JB (Johor Baru) and Singapore. The train to JB is terrible. Fulfil your manifesto and don't simply start projects that benefit no one," she added.
Still, there were some supporters for the idea.
Revathi Murugan said it was a good idea to have a new national car for Malaysia.
"This time, look into a better safety features with stronger chassis and frame. Create back job opportunity and develop nation for a better future... why limit Malaysians and their capabilities?" she said.
Andy Tan said Malaysia cannot rely only on its oil and gas revenue to drive the economy, and hoped that the country would groom its own technology and expertise for a more "Made in Malaysia" production.
"We need our own industrial establishment, the challenge is the implementation. We failed before, but doesn't mean we will fail again, let's believe it this time… it is very difficult, but we have to do this," he said, emphasising the need for transformation.
Some proposed that the new national car be fully electric.
Nurizam Khalid suggested aggressive tax incentives for electric cars, while Christopher Ng said he would support the idea if the hotly discussed national car company is “all about electric cars”.
The previous Barisan Nasional government led by ousted premier Najib Razak had rolled out tax incentives for hybrids and electric vehicles in 2011, but removed them in 2014, except for locally assembled hybrids and electric vehicles. The government then was aiming to have 100,000 electric cars on the road by 2030, and 125,000 charging stations to be built nationwide.
Other Malaysians were wary of the cost of protectionist measures. Foreign makes faced additional taxes previously to protect the fledgling local car company.
The idea received a resounding "No" from Louis Lai, who said the rakyat, or people, would not accept the move.
"This will make the other car prices go up! Because need to protect them again!!! We rakyat don't want this kind of protected industry! We want car price low!" he said.
Jason Ng called the idea another mega bailout in the making: "Don't you remember the Proton bailout, Tun M?"
However, Ann Lin said she did not mind the project, so long as additional taxes on foreign cars were removed.