A car by any other name
By Wong Sai Wan
To certain quarters, Proton is the only way to own a car, but to others it is a hindrance to a better car.
IF YOU do a search on YouTube for “Proton Inspira”, you will find that the top viewed video is not one showing the car but rather a short clip from the movie Downfall about World War II Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The dialogue is in German, but there are English subtitles. This short clip has been used by almost everyone and anybody to wallop anything – from Usain Bolt breaking the 100m record to the vuvuzela used in the last FIFA World Cup, and even Yahoo.
(Downfall, or to give its German title Der Untergang, is a 2004 German/Italian/Austrian epic drama directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel depicting the final 10 days of Hitler’s life in his Berlin bunker in 1945.)
The critics of Proton have seen it fit to re-word the subtitles to belittle the car company for its latest Inspira model which is a re-badge of the Mitsubishi Lancer. I don’t speak German, and although the actor playing Adolf Hitler shows great emotion, I doubt any obscenity is used, but the doctored subtitles are littered with words that would embarrass even the crudest sailor. Somehow, I am not surprised by the crassness of the parody, as Proton has become the favourite punching bag of many in Malaysia.
Isn’t it common for us to bitch about Proton’s power window, which either cannot come down or go up, or the transmission that is so expensive to replace and maintain? Soon after the March 8 general election, the new Terengganu, Perak and Selangor governments ditched the Proton Perdana as their official car, saying the national car’s top model was too expensive to maintain, and that these high-end vehicles often broke down. It did not help that the much-publicised “marriage” between Proton and Volkswagen broke down acrimoniously even before the wedding could take place. Some have taken to blaming Proton for being the sole cause of why car prices in Malaysia are so expensive.
According to them, the massive protection given by the Government to Proton, including high taxation on imported cars, has driven up the prices of such cars which would otherwise be affordable. The National Automotive Policy is said by its critics to be a eunuch set up only to protect the interest of Proton. In the few years since the new management took over at Proton, the attacks have been particularly bitter.
The attacks on Proton shifted a gear higher when certain politicians chose to turn the national car company into the symbol of everything that was wrong with the country. That Proton had fallen into a bad state over the past decade cannot be denied. A series of bad decisions and lousy models totally smashed many people’s confidence and love for the Proton brand.
So when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak suggested that there was a case for Proton and Perodua to merge if overcapacity was an issue and there was a need for consolidation, many read much into the Prime Minister’s statement, especially since he chose to say it on Proton’s 25th anniversary. For too long, the managements of Proton followed the philosophy of the consumers. “We are the cheapest and they have no choice but to buy whatever we make.” It did not help that it was treated like a “holy cow” by various authorities and attempts to rein it in failed to produce the desired results.
But things have changed. Proton Group Holdings Bhd managing director Datuk Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamed Tahir has taken to telling things as they are, as he knows that his company is no longer sacred and untouchable. He and the Government have even set up a board with international experts, and they have even appointed an international panel of advisers to chart the future of the company.
And when Najib made his announcement, Syed Zainal, a former senior executive at Perodua, surprised many by saying that it was a good thing – and the time was right – for the two companies to merge. During a recent briefing for editors, Syed Zainal asked why there were so many critics of the Inspira even before the model was unveiled. The editors, including yours truly, told him to come clean and openly admit that the Inspira was a rebadge, just like how the Persona was being rebadged and sold by its partners in China.
He did. But the criticism has continued despite rave reviews from the buying public about the car – a Mitsubishi Lancer complete with all its trimmings, although with about 40% local content, and about RM40,000 cheaper. Mitsubishi went through a lot of pain to say the two models were different, although most experts begged to differ.
So before we rush the demise of Proton, we must realise that as a national company, it has been a great success. Proton has produced more than 3.3 million cars in the past 25 years. It has also created jobs for more than 30,000 individuals and 1,842 professionals. It also claims to have been responsible for the setting up of 212 local automotive vendors.
I have owned five Proton models so far. Except for the Perdana which gave me all sorts of problems – from the power window to a dodgy transmission – I didn’t have much to complain about the other cars. For one thing, a Proton Saga was the first new car I ever bought – in 1987 – because that was all I could afford, and I was grateful.
In 1985, I had the honour of covering the opening ceremony of the first commercial production of the Proton Saga and I have not failed to go to the showroom to have a look each time a new model is launched. The late Datuk Gucharan Singh, the former managing director of EON Bhd, once told me: “Remember this is our car. Not this fella’s or that fella’s. It is OUR car.” Guch, as he was popularly known, even told me that it was he who came up with the Chinese name for the Proton Saga.
A fluent Cantonese speaker, he said the car should be known as “Kok Kah Ying Hoong Cheh”, which translates as the National Champion Car literally. We, millions of Malaysians, who had bought Protons over the past 25 years, cannot let the company fail. However, at the same time, Syed Zainal and his men must strive hard to ensure that their cars do not disappoint.
All we want is our money’s worth.
The Star Executive Editor Wong Sai Wan now drives a popular Japanese car but misses his South Korean 4WD which he had to sell because the very expensive transmission was about to go bust.