It appears that the majority of Malaysians did not respond very warmly to prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad idea of a new national car project to replace his beloved Proton. Are you one of them?

If yes, the PM has this to say to you, unbeliever. “Malaysia becomes a consumer country, a paddy farming and fishing country. It’s OK. This is what we want and this is what we’ll get. Just forget about Vision 2020.” It may be a sarcastic remark, but the rest of Mahathir’s blogpost on the matter truly reveals his (deep) feelings for The Car.

“I’m told that no one wants to see a second national car. It’s enough that we have Proton, which is seen as a failure. We’re not qualified and not capable of having an automotive industry. Malaysians rather buy imported cars, including those from China. Their choice is Japanese cars, and German cars for those who have plenty of money,” he started, before explaining the benefits of a country having its own carmakers.

The PM says that post-war Japanese cars were known as “Milo tin” cars, but from those beginnings rose the various Toyotas, Nissans and Suzukis we drive today. He also mentioned Hyundai’s Pony, and the rise of Japanese and Korean cars that phased out the cars from Austin, Morris and other European marques. “But of course, this won’t happen with Malaysia. Our cars will be made by ‘Milo tin’ forever,” he remarked, sarcastically.

“We’re not suggesting a second national car by the government. The private sector is already capable of producing designs, clay models, prototypes and mass production. But because we have rejected from the start the idea of a second national car, we have effectively blocked proposals by the private sector to produce a car. Of course, the government will not own an automotive industry.

“We buy imported cars. If we go to car producing nations such as Japan and Korea, you will not see non-local cars. Why? Because they do not allow the import of foreign cars. The result is better car quality and millions of units exported, with much inflow of foreign currency.

“Their people get jobs and live comfortably. Their economies grow and they become developed nations. Their engineering industry booms and supports other engineering industries.

“But not in Malaysia. Any car from anywhere, whether of good or ‘Milo tin’ quality, can enter Malaysia. Produced by giant companies, they control the Malaysian car market until Proton is buried. In the end, Proton is sold to foreigners. No more national car, no more automotive industry. Workers, engineers and managers no longer have jobs. Everything goes down,” Mahathir laments, ending with the ‘Oh well’ sentiment we started off with.

While we understand the disappointment of losing a baby, so to speak, there are always two sides of a coin. While the car industry contributed greatly to the industrialisation of Japan, surely it’s not the only thing that propelled the Land of the Rising Sun to the economic powerhouse it is today? Don’t discount their will to succeed, discipline, attention to detail and innovation. Cars like the original Lexus LS and Honda NSX were born out of that.

Proton, established in 1983, enjoyed a long period of market dominance thanks to the government’s protectionist policies, but did the carmaker push itself hard like Hyundai did? While it’s true that there are high barriers for auto imports in Japan and South Korea, carmakers from these countries have long gone past relying solely on their home turf for sales.

Also, while the car industry is a vital one for the likes of Japan and Germany, is it the only, or most important measure of a nation’s economy? While Mahathir’s Vision 2020 was likely conceived with a thriving Proton in mind, do we absolutely need to have a 100% locally owned carmaker to be deemed a success?

If yes, at what cost? Malaysians, are you willing to sacrifice access to foreign brand cars (at reasonable prices) to see a wholly Malaysian carmaker grow? Share your thoughts, but remember to keep it civil.