I’m writing this in response to a recent comment by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Proton. I don’t know how Tun Dr Mahathir sees (or saw) the national car industry as a politician, so I’m not going to comment much on that. I will instead focus my writing on how I see the Malaysian car industry.
The reasons behind the birth of Proton are noble causes indeed. Primarily, Proton is to realise the vision of creating affordable cars for Malaysians. For a while, this plan was actually heading towards the right path. The Proton Saga was definitely an affordable model.
Amidst the celebratory fanfare on its launch, the Saga met, and probably exceeded the expectations of Malaysian motorists… at least aesthetically. It looks nice, unoriginal (earlier Proton models are clones of older Mitsubishi ones), but still… nice.
It’s not long before design flaws of the Saga begin to surface, among which, the one with the most notoriety would be the infamous “power window problem”, which many claim to still haunt current Proton models.
In the meantime, the inevitable evolution in automative technology keeps moving forward. While the honchos at Proton were busy with something else (probably enjoying their earnings), it seems that they’ve forgotten that cars need to be improved upon constantly. Imported cars continue to define quality that consumers crave… but Proton, probably lulled by the market protection provided by the Malaysian government, failed to react proactively.
And when the second (and in my opinion, real) national car project, Perodua, was launched… it was obvious to almost everyone, except the staunch politician supporters of Proton, that it is gravely mismanaged, has no strategic vision beyond milking Malaysian consumers aided with the overprotective tariffs on foreign cars, and management who are out of touch with business realities.
Although placed in an “inferior” market segment (small cars, under 1000cc), Perodua didn’t take long to outshine the far bigger Proton. Perodua provides a refreshing look to Malaysians on how a dynamics automative player should be. It constantly redesigns its models to suit current trends. Although based on Daihatsu compact car models, Perodua managed to give its products an identity that is uniquely Perodua. Compared to Proton, whose current Saga model still stinks of the Iswara which is more than a decade old.
To make things worse, Proton idea of “redesign”, seems to mean making their cars more “rice-ish”, or as Malaysians (and Singaporeans) puts it “ah beng-ish”. I have no idea which market segment Proton is trying to entice… perhaps they’re just trying to add “value for money” to those people who like to transform their cheap Protons into imitation Evos and Lancers.
Marketing wise, Perodua is far more adept at identifying potential, and more importantly profiting from it. Proton, on the other hand, are champions of hype. I can’t help but feel that they like to hear the sound of their own voices… even when spouting nonsense. While Proton was busy telling whoever bothered to listen on how revolutionary their Tiara Replacement Model (now known as Savvy) will be, and publishing “teasers” on the media, Perodua pulled off one of the most intelligent publicity maneuvering in the Malaysian automative industry… it launched their latest model, the Myvi, a week before the scheduled official launching of Proton’s similar spec’ed model.
This move by Perodua, took all the buzz generated by Proton’s hype campaign and absorbed it in all it’s glory, leaving Proton dazed at the lacklustre acceptance of it’s Savvy model. Proton never recovered from this miscalculated promotional strategy. To add insult to injury, the television advertisement for Proton Savvy oozes stupidity and seem more like a junk food ad (you know, the one with a useless “free” toy inside) rather than one for a car. I’m sure that most Malaysians have seen it, the one where a monster used the Savvy to scratch its ass (or back, depending on how you see it). I was dumbfounded to say the least… the ad was amateurish, unintelligent and to be honest, blatantly false. If this was a junk food ad, I’m sure that the Malaysian Parliament will be discussing on how it misleads children and whatnot.
And don’t let me even start on the nonsense coming up from the pro-Proton camp, during the recent AP issue. You can read them yourself. It seems that these people have difficulty accepting the fact that Proton is uncompetitive. Proton’s over-reliance on government protection has blinded the company on the harsh realities of world economics. The basic law of supply and demand seems unabsorved by the strategists at Proton… how else can you explain saturating the market with rehashes of obsolete models? People won’t demand for old junk, no matter how much you change how the lights look… it still is old junk.
Another irritating tendency (politically connected) Proton supporters have is to equate Proton with nationalism. Whenever you hear these people talk on TV, it’s like you’re not Malaysian if you don’t support Proton. To be honest, Proton was a good plan… however, its implementation begs a lot of questions. Do Malaysians really benefitted from Proton, or was it Proton that profitted from Malaysians?
How I wish I could just let these people understand that market dynamics are nothing personal, and especially not political… it’s just business! You deliver what makes consumers happy, they’ll reward you with brand loyalty. You shove your products down their throat, expect them to vomit it back in your face. It has absolutely zilch to do with national pride. Live with it. Proton will probably die without even realising this… perhaps this is destined to happen anyway.