Mahathir's new car brand to be ASEAN effort

Factory workers weld an automobile frame at a Proton assembly line in Shah Alam, at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. (Tengku Bahar / AFP Photo)

Malaysia’s third push to build a national car brand may see it sourcing parts from its Southeast Asian neighbours, as the region forges stronger ties to weather out the United States (US)-China trade tensions.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s dream of developing a homegrown automotive brand has courted interest from neighbouring countries, Minister of International Trade and Industry Darell Leiking said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“What Mahathir meant was that he needed something where Malaysians can get together, ASEAN can get together, to supply components of this vehicle and make it into a national car in ASEAN, not only in Malaysia,” said Leiking. “It’s ambitious but I think that it’s necessary now, more so when you want to create an economic bloc like ASEAN.”

As a trade war between the US and China deepens, the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has benefited from its fallout as companies shift orders and move production bases to the region. It was the top destination among the one-third of more than 430 American companies in China that considered moving operations elsewhere, according to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and Shanghai.

Malaysia stands to gain as a trans-shipment point, capitalizing on its location by the Strait of Malacca - a historic channel connecting Asia’s biggest economies from Japan and China to India and beyond. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the trade war will be positive for the country over the next year or so, especially in electronics and steel as the world’s two biggest economies seek alternatives for supplies.

Privately driven

The government is gathering views from the industry on developing the new car brand, and will let the project be driven and funded by the private sector, Leiking said. The government will assist in licensing and facilitation, he added.

Mahathir revived his vision of a homegrown car brand just a month into his premiership. He started automaker Proton Holdings in the 1980s during his previous tenure, but the brand was later privatized and almost half the stake sold to China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. A second effort was made in the 1990s with Second Automobile Manufacturer Private Limited (Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd) also known as Perodua.

This time, however, the new car will compete in a market beyond Malaysia, Leiking said.

“Proton has already achieved what they’ve wanted and they’re there,” he said. “So, this is not competing with Proton, this is not competing even with Perodua, this is not competing with anyone. This is a separate thing altogether.”

Advise and pray

A successful carmaker could help boost the nation’s exports, which relies on commodities such as crude and palm oil, as well as electronics. Shipments declined 0.3 percent in August from a year ago, falling far short of economist estimates for an eight percent increase. That narrowed the trade surplus to US$385 million, from US$2 billion in July.

Malaysia had considered the possible knock-on effects that global trade tensions may have on the supply chain. The government has engaged with representatives from the US on the matter and was banking on the world’s two largest economies remaining rational.

“Eventually America and the Chinese will come to an understanding, and I pray that they do,” Leiking said. “What else can we do other than advise them and pray? I have faith that they will come to their senses.” - Bloomberg