At the Alami Proton open day event last weekend, Proton chairman Tun Mahathir Mohamad talked to us about the public perception problems the national carmaker still faced, even through its cars are greatly improved.

The former prime minister said that even though Proton now makes cars that are “the same or even better” than those of other brands, Malaysians still bring up very old problems the brand faced, like malfunctioning power windows – which he claimed now “perform very well.”

He added that some of Proton’s key strengths, such as safety, have fallen on deaf ears, partly because a number of its salespeople do not know exactly how to explain these features to buyers. The company is looking to address the issue, first with a showcase of the technology at Alami Proton, then hiring a professional advertising agency to market the cars.

Mahathir said that the public needs to try out the company’s latest product, the Iriz, to see for themselves how well the car drives and how comfortable it is. “Perception is the issue here. In other countries, the people would be proud to drive a national car,” he said.

Clockwise from left: new Perdana teased; prototype 1.3 litre turbo engine; Iriz EV prototype

With regards to government protection, Mahathir said that the nation practically shunned locally-made cars in favour of imported vehicles. He added that it was in stark contrast to other countries, where the high barrier of entry has made it difficult for Proton to penetrate the market. “This is our problem, which we will probably have to deal with the government,” he said.

He also claimed that Proton has come a long way in its 30 years, whereas attempts from other nations to crack the automotive sector can take as long as an entire century. “Yes, now the technologies are readily available, so we don’t have to invent new ones, but still, to integrate them into our cars is our problem,” he said. “If we don’t know how to properly utilise the new technologies, then there’s no point also.”

As such, Mahathir said that Proton is in the right position to be the catalyst in improving Malaysia’s engineering prowess, which the country needs to join the ranks of developed countries. “We have a proper engineering department,” he said. “This has developed a lot of the supporting industry, and we hope they can expand their business to other markets as well.”