Proton: An Expensive Mistake

June 9, 2016

Proton: An Expensive Mistake

by Koon Yew Yin

Malaysians deserve an explanation of why Proton, the brainchild of former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, remains in trouble, despite massive infusions of funds. The MITI Minister, Dato’Seri Mustapa Mohamed says that government cannot continue protecting and supporting Proton, and that the firm must learn to compete on its own after over three decades in existence. That is right. I, therefore, do not understand why the Malaysian Government must now subscribe to 1.25 billion RCCPS issued by Proton via GOVCO Holdings Bhd by way of a RM 1.25 cash payment. It is time to stop  using taxpayers’ money to underwrite a failed project.–Din Merican

All Malaysian taxpayers must have been shocked to read the article “Proton to raise capital” , car maker issuing Rm 1.25 billion convertible preference shares to Government, on page 3 of The Star on 7th June 2016.

Proton is a 100% unit of DRB-Hicom. When the redeemable convertible cumulative preference shares (RCCPS) is exercised into shares, the Government will end up with a 79% stake in Proton and DRB-Hicom’s shareholdings will be diluted from 100% to about 21%.

DRB-Hicom yesterday said the Government had agreed to subscribe to 1.25 billion RCCPS issued by Proton via GOVCO Holdings Bhd by way of a RM 1.25 cash payment.

Proton has been experiencing flagging vehicle sales in recent years and this has affected its cash flow position. Proton plays a crucial role in the national automobile industry where there are about 12,000 workers directly under it while about 50,000 are employed under various vendor companies.

The founding of Proton National Bhd. in 1983 was an expensive mistake to begin with. Billions of ringgit from taxpayers have been lost in the process. Moreover, to encourage people to buy Proton, the Government increased the import duty for other cars and car parts. As a result, consumers suffered. For over 30 years we have had to pay higher prices for all cars including Proton. Even this has not been sufficient to save Proton which has been sold five times already.

Now with the Government owning 79% of Proton, the hemorrhage will continue unless the Government, the controlling shareholder makes some drastic changes to the current system of producing cars.

  1. From the report, the Government representatives will come from the Ministries of Finance, Industry and Economic Planning Unit. I suggest some old Directors should be removed to be replaced by these Government representatives.
  2. It is also essential to remove a few of the top managers and replace them with new people with the necessary experience.
  3. The new management must see how to measure the efficiency of the 12,000 workers directly under the company. One way is to compare the labour cost of producing a similar car in Japan or compare it with Perodua which has been profitable since its inception in 1992.
  4. The new management must also see how the company buys parts from the vendors who are employing about 50,000 workers? Is the company obliged to buy parts from these vendors? Can the company call for quotations for the supply of parts from the open market?
  5. Proton should copy the way Perodua manufactures its cars. I understand that the Japanese have full management control of the car manufacturing process, although they are minority shareholders.

Malaysians are now wondering – will the burden on taxpayers and car owners be continued in other new ways?

One simplistic assumption which appears to have been made by Dr. Mahathir, the initiator of the national car project, is that an industry that is growing yearly should be profitable. It is not. In fact, industry data shows that the total profits of all the car companies over the last few decades amount to only a modest return, and that too only for the fittest in the industry. Even year on year increase in sales will not guarantee generating good returns to shareholders, even in a highly developed economy with a long tradition of successful car manufacturing such as Britain.

This is because one of the forces that limit profitability is the intensity of rivalry between car companies from around the world. This leads to oversupply and pressure on prices. This is exacerbated by a high degree of freedom for new competitors to enter the industry.

Consider the case of British Leyland, a vehicle-manufacturing company formed in the United Kingdom in 1968. It was partly nationalised in 1975 with the government creating a new holding company. The company incorporated much of the British owned motor vehicle industry, and held 40% of the UK car market.

Despite having profitable marques such as Jaguar, Rover and Land Rover, as well as the best-selling Mini, British Leyland had a troubled history. In 1986 it was renamed as the Rover Group, later to become MG Rover Group, which went into administration in 2005. This ended mass car production by British-owned manufacturers.

Today, many British car marques are now owned by foreign companies. For example MG and the Austin, Morris and Wolseley have all become part of China’s SAIC Motor Corporation Limited.

Another question to ask is why few car manufacturers, until recently, seem to go into bankruptcy? Then prices can rise relative to cost and shareholders can get a fair return.

There are two main reasons. In some countries there is always the perennial optimism of managers and shareholders. In Malaysia, the reason is different. Here, our Government has been changing rules and regulations to obstruct other cars from entering our market whilst providing special concessions including an ever ready supply of financial assistance to keep Proton afloat.

The end result is that some Malaysians have ended up with more expensive cars of other brands whilst most Malaysians have had little choice but to buy Proton – a poor substitute! This is the price we have to pay for brainless patriotism.

Koon Yew Yin is a retired chartered civil engineer and one of the founders of IJM Corporation Bhd and Gamuda Bhd.

14 thoughts on “Proton: An Expensive Mistake

  1. Mr Koon mentioned the demise of the British auto industry.
    This is actually quite well documented in the excellent Transport Museum
    located in Coventry, England.

  2. Shift to green technologies and into robotisation?

    Essentially, the transport industry moves people and goods from Point A to
    Point B in a timely manner. Cars are only one mode for moving people.

    Small-sized goods can be moved by drones. They can also be “moved” electronically to another destination and 3-D printed out there (this can be applied to bigger-sized goods too).
    People can be moved by driverless vehicles. The question is how to move masses of people, with low energy expenditure and low impact on the environment.
    P.S. I also recall some futurists who advocate more use of airships.

  3. Just another of Mahathir’s hare-brained idea to enable the greasing of palms (instead of greasing the gear boxes) and the AP scam. Malaysia never had any competitive advantage in the motor industry. Decades before Proton, Singapore was already assembling Mercedes, Volvo and other cars. However, it realized that such economic activities are not viable in Singapore and abandoned car assembly decades ago. Proton, is just a souped-up car assembler – nothing more.

    Just bite the bullet and close down the plant.

    Norway is going to ban petrol cars by 2025. That is the way to go.

  4. Even though Proton is 100% privately owned now, the public’s perception is that it is still a government’s baby, a government committed / expected to help every time Bumiputra’s interests / livelihoods are at affected. And so with 72,000 jobs, mostly Bumiputra jobs at stake, it is too political to fail.

    Even if a future government formed by the present opposition coalition is to be in charge, some form of financial assistance has to be given. Closing down Proton completely is not an option for any government.

    If it fails today, the effect will reverberate right up to GE14.

    So what choice has Najib’s government got? After all it is only public money to save Bumiputra interests / livelihoods, why not? It may even give Najib’s image a boost with another opportunity to hit Mahathir.

  5. If there is an salvaging to be done we have to consider the going online of our new “massive” MRT / LRT expansion. There will be lesser need for vehicles whilst demand will grow for certain type – that is IF and ONLY IF the local market can sustain the industry.

    Alternative is to compete globally which given the resources and capabilities we should not have done in the first place. The strategy at first was to use local consumption to springboard into international market and as usual we got “lost” somewhere.

    Whilst we should do a post mortem we should consider more the strategies of moving forward. Options are to wind-up, limited scope or just be a importer.

    Automotive industry is an expensive club. Even giants like US and Japan are paying highly for the membership fees …

  6. My suggestion to the PM Najib is simple :

    Close it down
    REPLICATE the administration and manufacturing networking of PERDUA, Without government meddling.

  7. Not just the few billions RM bail out, but many more billions lost opportunity when Thailand took over as the hub of car assembly becos of TDM one track mind on Proton

  8. WIth a government like ours, it would be far more economical and less aggravating to the citizenry if they just stop all industry and issue BRIM using the sales proceeds of our oil (get Shell or BP to pump it out). We’d be richer then and not have to put up with all the corruption and incompetence.

  9. Sam is absolutely right. Malaysia lost the opportunity to become Detroit of Asia demi agama,bangsa dan negara.

  10. Not so fast, Bukit Sentosa. With Malaysia’s dysfunctional politics, rising crime rates and crumbling infrastructure, I’d say we still have a chance to match Detroit. Detroit circa 2008, that is.

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