PETALING JAYA: One month after the official signing ceremony sealing a deal that gave China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group a 49% stake in Proton, it is believed the issue will have an impact in the next general election (GE14).
Ibrahim Suffian of independent opinion polling firm Merdeka Center told South China Morning Post that he believes the Proton issue will be used during GE14, as it pits Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) against Proton founder and now opposition coalition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“For the last three decades Proton has been sold to the Malays as an economic coming of age, our move from an agrarian economy to an industrialised one. It was the embodiment of the technological progress acquired by the community.
“Domestically, the narrative was that the children of farmers are now carmakers,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong-based daily.
He added that Proton is still seen as a national project and remains a symbol of pride and progress.
“The notion that it has been sold to a foreign company, a Chinese one, can be disconcerting for conservative nationalists, particularly at a time where leadership is being criticised over a number of issues related to cost of living and austerity.
“It creates the impression that the country isn’t as strong as it used to be,” he told SCMP’s This Week in Asia.
“Government critics have not yet capitalised on this, but looking at how they’ve come together, particularly under Mahathir, they will definitely speak out to draw distinction between themselves and the incumbents.”
Mahathir stepped down as Proton Holdings chairman in March last year, just a week after he was terminated from his post as Petronas adviser, in what was seen as a move to enable Proton to get the government funds needed to help save the company.
Mahathir, who was recently named Pakatan Harapan chairman, had previously alleged that the decision to sell a major stake in Proton was an act of revenge by the current regime.
“Proton, the child of my brain has been sold. It is probably the beginning of the great sell-out. The process is inexorable. No other way can we earn the billions to pay our debts.
“The only way is to sell our assets. And eventually we will lose our country, a great country no doubt, but owned by others,” he wrote in his blog, shortly after the sale was confirmed.
Under Mahathir’s premiership, Proton was established as a source of nationalistic pride in 1983. However, the flagship national car has long been flagging, grappling with declining sales and losses of hundreds of millions of ringgit yearly. By last year its market share had diminished to barely 12%.
In May, Geely confirmed its acquisition of a 49.9% stake in Proton for RM460.3 million from Proton’s parent, DRB-Hicom.
Najib said at last month’s signing ceremony that the “strategic partnership” would be what Proton needed to turn itself around and become a Malaysian success after losing “hundreds of millions of ringgit” a year.
According to SCMP, Najib also turned the screws further on his former mentor by saying the criticisms of foreign direct investment to launch a new era in Proton were “ill-informed and sometimes frankly racist”.