Like it or not, Najib helped liberalise the motor industry
Although many people are celebrating the incarceration of former prime minister Najib Razak for corruption, we should recognise that he also contributed to national development in liberalising the motor industry.
When the Zhejiang Geely proposal to partner with Proton came to Najib for approval, as prime minister, he had no objection.
Had this happened in Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s era, the proposal would have been met with stern distaste.
What Najib did was not just allow terminal-case Proton to have a foreign partner, he also did not insist on a traditional 100-year old brand like Volkswagen or Peugeot.
Zhejiang Geely group at that time was just a 10-year old company with foreign acquisitions barely on the radar. Yet it was intrigued with Malaysia’s national car company which also owned Lotus, the legendary British automotive engineering company that built F1 winners and open-wheel sports cars like the Lotus 7.
And Proton was available for urgent sale.
Proton is now flying high with Zhejiang Geely streaming in popular models fresh from China, the world’s largest car market.
For the first time, Proton can boast of having first-in-Southeast Asia cars launched in Malaysia.
But before this success with Zhejiang Geely, Proton could have been the first indigenous, stand-alone car maker in the region to have developed a collection of hybrid and electric cars by 2010.
Sadly, the whole experiment ended in 2012 with DRB-Hicom’s accountant-centric management cutting losses, disbanding the Green Technology Department and stopping all R&D expenditure on EVs.
This was also the time when charismatic CEO, Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamed Tahir, left Proton.
Many of the 100 or so engineers and technicians from the Green Technology Department are now in China and some in EV projects in Malaysia
Evidence of this pre-2010 era green technology work was finally erased in mid-2020 when all the Proton Saga EV, Proton Iriz EV, Proton Exora EV and concept cars went under the hammer of the Pickles Asia Auction house.
One of the interesting concepts was a Proton Exora Range Extender with a Lotus designed engine, the RE60, a three-cylinder 600cc petrol engine to extend the range of the Battery Electric Exora.
But there was one concept car, and arguably also the most prominent, that was saved: the Proton EMAS concept car. In 2010, the EMAS made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. It was designed by ItalDesign Giugiaro as Proton’s world car.
Many new automotive industry projects are coming to Malaysia and Southeast Asia.
There’s a project proponent lobbying for one of the world’s largest EV battery makers who needs about 1,000 ha of industrial land either in Kuantan or Klang.
Another project proponent is talking about stitching a deal between a world leading EV pioneer to make cars in Sarawak, if not Sabah. Land and location is also a major consideration.
Above all that is the emplacement of a competitive and stable automotive policy considering that energy transition for gas-rich Malaysia should be inclusive of clean fossils like CNG and hydro-rich Sarawak for green hydrogen.
Southeast Asia is positioned to benefit from the spillover of a technology war between the US and China. as global car makers race to shift EV investment away from politically sensitive areas.
Is the Malaysian government satisfied with what it’s doing to attract these companies to relocate to Malaysia?
Let not Najib’s good deed in liberalising the motor industry go to waste.