The year was 1985, the song was Careless Whisper and I was a fat adolescent with a penchant for all things cars (because I didn’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell with the girls). The idea of Malaysia producing its own automobile was received with typical Malaysian skepticism, epitomised poignantly by our greatest social commentator, Lat, where the venerable satirist sketched the body of what looked like a ‘60’s MG topped by a Minangkabau roof.

This cynicism was not just us Malaysians being Malaysians. The world was a very different place then, especially when you consider that it had taken a decade and a half for the average punter to not be embarrassed about buying a Japanese car after two generations of European hegemony.

So the idea of a Malaysian car was perhaps a bridge too far for the time. I mean, if Hondas and Toyotas were Milo tins, imagine what they’d call a local car. So while there was great debate and lots of rhetoric on all sides, in 1985, the Proton Saga, came to be.

I remember my first Saga. It was that ‘Kermit the frog’ metallic green and I first saw it in the flesh in front of Tai Kuang Book Store in Segamat. The proud owner had barely parked before the hordes amassed to catch a glimpse of the new car. I remember almost falling off my Raleigh Rapide (a most funny sight, if you’re a fatty in shorts) as I craned my podgy neck. My first thought was… it’s a Lancer F!

It was probably months before I got my first ride, as most of my family were way too proud to buy-in to the idea of the Proton, plus being Sri Lankan Tamil, we were really cheap and were probably waiting for the price to drop. It didn’t stop me going to the local EON showroom, pretending to view the car, apparently for my father (God bless the kind salesman who clearly must have seen through my ruse).

And so the saga of the Saga began (had to lah). It became a dividing symbol. A proud one for many and to an equal number, the living example of Malaysia’s many follies. I for one was always in the latter category, not for any philosophical reasons, but simply because I blamed it for making car prices out of reach.

Of course the Saga and Proton went on to become Malaysia’s automotive juggernaut, consuming everything in its path with avarice. But with engorgement came complacence and eventually an equally ignominious dethroning.

Thirty five years on, and much has changed. I’m no longer a fat adolescent, but a fat middle-aged man on the precipice of a half-century. And in hindsight, there was some method to the madness. When the Saga came out in 1985, the total number of passenger cars sold in Malaysia was 67,888 units. Last year, that number was 550,179.

In 1985, our local automotive industry consisted of glorified assembly. Today the vendor ecosystem gross turnover is easily above RM4 billion. Today, there are Malaysian parts vendors that supply the region and some are even global. The automotive industry now contributes more than 4% of the national GDP, which is not something to be sneezed at.

While you can argue that car sales are a reflection of higher purchasing power, one must concede that the flourishing automotive ecosystem is not something that happened serendipitously. And in many ways we have Proton and the Saga to thank for it. It paved the way for the industry’s growth and for all the players that have come after, and are yet to come.

I’m the last person on the planet who you could consider a Proton apologist, and there’s enough evidence of that, believe me. However, today I wear the hat of that fat teenager who couldn’t contain his excitement/horror at the idea of a Malaysian car. And when I think today of the seminal events that have shaped Malaysia, the Saga has definitely got to be up there for my generation.

It was a statement of intent and a bold assertion of what might be. Some might say it bordered on the delusional, but most dreams tend to start out that way. It was this realisation that in a sense brought me back to Malaysia from Singapore to take up a role at Proton (fate is a funny mistress).

So while I may not be completely enamoured of all things Saga, I am moved by what it meant to Malaysia and my generation. I am moved by the wave of nostalgia that wafts around me like the familiar smell of durian as I ponder the misspent youth, the shattered dreams and the triumphs. The Saga seems to have mirrored much of that journey. The real irony is that I have never owned a Saga nor was there ever a Proton in our driveway.

And yet, I must give it its due. Because just like George Michael, carrot cut baggy pants, a mullet and shoulder pads, the Saga was the car of my generation, for better or for worse.

Happy 35th Birthday, Proton Saga!

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GALLERY: 1990 Proton Saga Megavalve