Mahathir Revives Dream of National Car After `Baby' Proton Sold

(Bloomberg) -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is reviving his dream of a new national car after the automaker he started in the 1980s was privatized and a stake was later sold to a Chinese company.

“Our ambition is to start another national car, perhaps with some help from Southeast Asia,” he said at a Nikkei conference in Tokyo, his first official overseas trip since being reinstalled as premier last month. “Malaysia has the capacity to do almost 100 percent of the development of a new automobile. This can be obtained by having foreign partners.”

Proton Holdings Bhd., the carmaker Mahathir started in 1983 during his first stint as premier, faltered over the years even with billions of dollars in grants and subsidies. It was taken private in 2012 by DRB-Hicom Bhd., a conglomerate controlled by Malaysian billionaire Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary. Last year, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. bought a 49.9 percent stake in Proton.

Mahathir saw it as an insult to national pride, and viewed the carmaker as collateral damage from his ongoing feud with then-premier Najib Razak. He criticized the government for the sale, saying that the administration “seems to be set on bankrupting Proton and selling it off, because I think it is regarded as my baby.”

Mahathir, who first led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, returned to power in a shocking victory last month. Now that he’s back, he’s looking to give the dream another try -- and says the country has the know-how to succeed.

Malaysia has acquired most of the necessary technical knowledge in the years it has partnered with Mitsubishi Corp. through Proton to build cars onshore, he said. Some car parts are too expensive for Malaysia to develop on its own, and will need to be sourced from other countries, including Japan, Mahathir said.

“We need to depend on foreign technology, foreign partners, at the beginning,” he said. "But eventually we’ll be able to do everything by ourselves."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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