In 1983 during his first term as Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad launched the Proton car brand which for decades produced some of the top selling vehicles in one of south east Asia’s fastest growing economies. However, subsequent years have seen Proton become highly indebted. In spite of this, the joint Malaysian-Japanese venture to produce Perodua vehicles in Malaysia has been something of a success although the Perodua name is hardly on the wider international radar.
Now that the 93 year old Mahathir is back at the helm of a new Malaysian coalition government he plans to initiate the third major phase in the development of the Malaysian automotive industry while he has suggested the possibility of a joint venture between his country and his partners in China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
While seemingly ambitious, Mahathir’s push for an internationally recognised Malaysian car industry is part of a wider trend of economically robust developing nations seeking to create sustainable industrial growth while gaining international brand recognition for their products. Turkey’s President Erdogan recently announced his intention to design his country’s first domestically designed and produced car with an aim for not only the domestic market but also export markets. The growing success of India’s Tata and the inevitability of Chinese made cars becoming the next big Asian auto export to conquer markets as far as the Americas and Europe – thus following in Japan’s footsteps when the country became a world leading auto exporter beginning in the 1970s, could reshape the look of roads throughout the world in the coming decades.
In a world whose population continues to grow and as more and more paved roads are constructed throughout the developing world, Mahathir’s drive to make Malaysia into a major player in the automotive export market is in-keeping with existing trends within the developing world where countries are no longer content to remain manufacturing bases for companies from developed economies.
Instead, an overall impetus exists to help transform developing nations into innovators who create their own unique domestically designed products that have international appeal. China is clearly leading the way in this respect and because of this, the collaboration that Mahathir has suggested could help to develop new pan-Asian brands in the automotive industry in the same way that European nations successfully developed Airbus as a multi-national and successful brand in the international aviation industry.
Just as more and more medium and large developing nations are challenging the primacy of the three superpowers as well as Britain, France and Israel in the international arms market, so too are Germany, Japan and the US now being increasingly challenged by new auto makers. The success of many Korean brands across the globe is a further testament that car buyers throughout the world are ready to depart from familiar brands from familiar countries of origin and embrace competitively priced modern vehicles from newcomers to the market.
As the most forward looking leader in Malaysia’s modern history Mahathir Mohammad looks to be at the forefront of a 21st century boom in the south east Asian auto market. As the man who reversed his country’s negative economic fortunes in the 1980s and in so doing ushered in a booming period of development and wealth for his countrymen, his current project should be welcomed with optimism rather than rejected with a scepticism that overlooks his generally successful periods in government in the 1980s and 1990s.