What’s wrong with protecting Proton, asks Mahathir

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PUTRAJAYA: Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said there is nothing wrong for a developing country with an automobile industry such as Malaysia to impose restrictions on foreign cars, saying even major car producers including Japan have such protectionist policies.

“Look at Japan, Korea, China, they restrict the entry of foreign cars. If you want to come in, you have to pay a certain amount before you can go in.

“Protecting your local market is not something dishonourable. One country charges agricultural tax on imported cars,” the former prime minister said in an exclusive interview with FMT recently.

Just two years into his premiership, Mahathir launched Proton, and two years later in 1985, the company rolled out its first model Proton Saga, becoming an instant hit at the back of agressive promotion by the government as the national pride.

In 1993, Proton cars accounted for some 75% of cars on Malaysian roads, but the figure dropped to a little more than 12% last year, which some blamed on the government’s liberalisation of imported cars.

In 2014, Mahathir was appointed as chairman of Proton Holdings Berhad, but he quit the post last year after a fallout with Prime Minister Najib Razak.

With dwindling sales, there is speculation that Proton will be sold to a foreign buyer, as efforts to jumpstart the automaker with government funds have not borne results.

But Mahathir denied Proton had received government subsidies.

Instead, he prefers to call the government help as “research grant”, which he said was not given to the company despite being promised by the government.

“Until now, I think it has not been given,” he said.

He insisted that Proton had come a long way in its three decades of existence, adding that it had during the period “mastered the art and science of building cars, from A to Z”.

“That’s a great accomplishment.”

Mahathir admitted that Proton had borrowed technology in the past, and said its newer models nowadays were equipped with the latest automobile features.

“You go up a hill, you lift your foot off the brake, the car doesn’t go backwards,” he said, adding that even its base line Saga model had advanced safety features.

He added that Proton’s acquiring of car companies such as Lotus meant that it could tap on its high-end technology.

“The company belongs to us. We don’t have to buy (the technology).”

He said developing technologies was not a problem because Proton’s automobile engineers were highly qualified and were sought after by other companies.

The hour-long interview with FMT saw Mahathir defending his legacies and economic policies during his 22-year rule.

Mahathir, 92, now the PPBM chairman, is currently on a nationwide ceramah campaign trail with opposition leaders from Pakatan Harapan.