Entrepreneur asks for just a shot, not a handout for electric bus project

Azlan Merican posing in front of an Ebim.

SHAH ALAM: Entrepreneur Azlan Merican speaks wistfully of a busier time when he had nearly 40 employees working at high-value jobs.

Now he has eight, and they either work part-time or mostly from home.

His company, Sync R&D, embarked in 2011 on an ambitious project to produce electric buses so that transport operators could stop importing them from China.

He spoke of the Chinese buses as inexpensive but difficult and costly to maintain.

“Chinese electric bus companies always want to maintain their own buses,” he said. “So they usually fly in their engineers, which means there’s no technology transfer and an outflow of money.

“We knew the demand was there. RapidKL alone has plenty of buses. And with the MRT and LRT expansion projects on the horizon, more feeder buses would be needed.”

Over the next six years, the company poured in more than RM40 million into research and development, engineering and putting together the first Elektrik Bas Inovasi Malaysia (Ebim).

In 2017, the first Ebim was certified as fit for road use by the Road Transport Department, having been benchmarked against United Nations Economic Commission for Europe standards for transport.

An Ebim being test driven.

Things were going according to plan and the company even received a draft letter of agreement from MRT Corp for the supply of several units of Ebim, but the deal was never signed.

The change of government in 2018 saw the administration reviewing unsigned agreements, and the deal with Sync R&D was cancelled.

“We were advised by MRT Corp to appeal, which we have done,” Azlan said. “But so far there’s been no news.”

In the meantime, the company has been bleeding money and Azlan has had to let go of most of his employees.

“If the agreement was cancelled because there was some hanky-panky or because it was based on political connections, I could accept it. But there is no such thing.

“It’s frustrating because I played by the book. I poured millions into developing homegrown tech, and we have what I believe is a great product. All that I’m lacking now is a chance to prove it.”

Azlan said he did not believe in handouts and was not asking for any. All he wants is for the government to engage his company for a pilot project.

“Let the pilot project speak for itself. If it’s good, go ahead and buy some Ebims. If it is not, then there are no issues. I’ll take it as a loss. In business, you have to be prepared for failure.”

An Ebim parked at Sync R&D’s headquarters.

He said some people in the government told him it was easier to procure electric buses from overseas.

“It kills me when people say it’s easier to buy from China because our country benefits so little. There’s no technology transfer and no jobs created and our money goes to China to benefit its economy.”

According to Azlan, the Ebim’s operating costs and weight are less than half of diesel buses and its composite monocoque body can last 20 years, whereas the lifespan of a diesel bus is only 12 years.

He claimed that other countries had shown interest in his company but were waiting to see if Malaysia would embrace its own product first.

“One Asian country is especially interested, but has asked us to modify the bus to meet its requirements.

“This will take time, but if it works out and nothing happens in Malaysia, I’ll have no choice but to move my operations there.”