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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The problem with Proton...

Once we realise that people and productivity come first, it will be easier to solve the myriad headaches facing the car industry in general and Proton in particular.

THE problem with Proton Holdings Bhd is that it feels that Malaysia owes it a living. It wants to continue to make profits at the expense of Malaysians. It does not realise that 25 years is too old for it to be babied.

And now it wants to marry its competitor, Perodua or Perusuhaan Otomobil Kedua, which has surpassed Proton in sales and become number one, so that its future will be sort of assured by larger scale and access to a foreign partner.

But Perodua is a reluctant bride and its top management has openly, and understandably, expressed opposition against the merger because it gives no benefit to Perodua while being potentially rather harmful.

A forced marriage is a recipe for disaster, and it is high time that the Government stood up and took notice of these objections and examined clearly how irrational the reasons are for the proposed merger. The reality of the situation is that Proton, or for that matter any other Malaysian manufacturer, including Perodua, is unable to have the scale and technological expertise to be a viable world manufacturer of cars on its own.

That leaves Proton with no other choice but to find a technological partner, or merge with a reputable, large manufacturer. The first alternative would mean that it will never become competitive and will rely on the partner for its survival.

The second alternative, the only viable one, was very near to completion a few years ago when it was completing a deal with the world’s fourth largest car company Volkswagen in 2007 (and again earlier this year) but the deal was scuttled at the last minute by vested interests.

If that deal had materialised, Proton would have been well on the road to a bright future full of promise as Volkswagen geared all Proton’s excess capacity up to become a regional manufacturer.

By now, Malaysians and South East Asians could be driving the Volkswagen engineered cars at a fraction of their current price.

We could have seen the local parts manufacturing industry getting a boost from increased volumes and expertise from the German manufacturer which helped the Czech manufacturer Skoda become a major automotive power in a relatively short period of time.

The price to be paid would have been to surrender majority control of Proton to Volkswagen, but even there arrangements could have been made to keep Malaysian distribution and service operations under local majority control (as with Perodua) and let Volkswagen take majority control of manufacturing and regional operations.

That would have been win-win for both parties but pride and vested interests dictated otherwise. Since then the attractiveness of Proton and what it has to offer has diminished in the eyes of international car companies and the national car manufacturer has been unable to strike a deal with any of them.

Proton realises that it is in desperate straits because its local, home-grown models have been unimpressive, as a result of which it lost the lead to the much more reliable Perodua with its popular Myvi range of models. Perodua has not looked back since.

But the baby still wants its milk and now it is looking to Perodua to mother it and provide it with a badly needed lifeline after it desperately did a deal with Mitsubishi to re-badge the Lancer as the Inspira – hardly inspiring stuff.

Now it is turning the screws on Perodua and is applying pressure for a merger. Perodua has built itself a successful niche operation with technological help from Toyota-controlled Daihatsu and has become a regional manufacturer of sorts. Its models are more in demand simply because quality and performance is better than Proton’s.

It is a merger that Perodua clearly does not want. But will it have a choice at the end of the day? Both Proton and Perodua are essentially controlled by the Government or by Government-linked companies, with only Perodua’s manufacturing operations under Japanese control.

The Japanese, through Toyota and Mitsui and Co, can raise their objections here, especially since Toyota has already more or less made its regional plans here in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere.

Malaysia lost out because of – yes, Proton and a terribly flawed National Automotive Policy which favours inefficient local manufacturers and assemblers and some favoured franchise operators who rely on approved permits for their trade.

The business solution is very clear – wean the Proton baby off, and ensure that the punitive import duties on cars are progressively removed so that Malaysians don’t have to subsidise the profits of the likes of Protons and can enjoy cheaper cars.

Perodua is likely to survive that move as it has a solid technological and equity relationship with Daihatsu and is fast becoming a regional manufacturer but Proton will have to merge or go extinct. The sooner Proton is weaned off the faster it will see its predicament and sort something out.

Surely that solution cannot be pulling under the water another perfectly well established national car project which is currently flourishing under the only workable model under which a national car project will survive.

Proton lost its chance with Volkswagen. Let it go out there and find an alliance with a world manufacturer like Perodua did a while ago. Let it leave Perodua well alone.


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