Making clear his disappointment at the sale of Malaysian carmaker Proton to China’s Zhejiang Geely Automotive last month, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has likened it to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.
“I am sure Proton will do well. It will be a commercial success. It will be sold all over the world. The Proton name will be everywhere,” Tun Dr Mahathir wrote in his blog.
“It will be like Singapore. Malaysians are proud of this great city-state. If it had not been sold it would be, perhaps, as well developed as Kuala Kedah or Kuala Perlis. Then we cannot be proud of Singapore,” he added.
Observers note that Proton was a brainchild and pet project of Dr Mahathir’s when he was the country’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
In 1965, when Singapore left Malaysia, he was an ultra-nationalist Umno backbencher who had opposed the separation. The fact that the Republic has gone on to do well still rankles with the 91-year-old.
It can be seen in his suggestion that had Singapore not broken away from the federation, it would have been no better than the two sleepy Malaysian towns of Kuala Kedah and Kuala Perlis.
Both coastal towns are far smaller than a Housing Board estate in Singapore. They are fishing ports from where ferries to Langkawi depart.
TIME TO LET IT GO
But his bigger point is that the government has given up on Proton and has failed to make the necessary investments to sustain it and keep it fully Malaysian… I disagree with him and I think it is time we let go.
ISEAS – YUSOF ISHAK INSTITUTE VISITING SENIOR FELLOW WAN SAIFUL WAN JAN, a Malaysian, on Dr Mahathir’s remarks.
Kuala Kedah currently has about 20,000 residents, and Kuala Perlis about 14,000. As political science professor Bilveer Singh notes, they are “almost incomparable” with Singapore, which had a population of near two million by the 1960s.
And Singapore’s stable and progressive society, where all races do well, is a contrast to its neighbour.
Other observers, like ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat, believe Dr Mahathir wanted to drive home the point that the impact of the Malaysian government’s decision is irreversible. For once sold off to a foreigner, even if Proton does well, what reason do Malaysians have for being proud of it since the company is no longer theirs?
Political observer Eugene Tan said using Singapore in the comparison is meant to evoke negative feelings towards the Proton deal – and remind Malaysian readers that their country is losing what should rightfully be theirs.
“Also, he is alluding to the point that if Proton remained 100 per cent Malaysian, it would not be a success and will remain just a car sold and used in Malaysia, especially in rural areas,” said Associate Professor Tan, who is with Singapore Management University.
“The nub of the issue, however, for Dr M is: Success at what price? Even if Malaysians are proud of Proton and Singapore, the sting of these not being Malaysian is effectively an indictment of Malaysian leadership, ability and know-how.”
He added: “Bringing up Singapore hits to the core of the Malaysian psyche. It is ‘us versus them’, while also suggesting that Singapore’s progress and success have made Malaysia look relatively worse off.”
Prof Tan notes that Dr Mahathir is also making the point that the current Malaysian leadership is letting mainland Chinese companies take on bigger stakes in the economy when it should remain in the hands of bumiputeras.
“With the Malaysian general election likely to be held later this year, we can expect the rhetoric to go up a few notches,” he added.
ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute visiting senior fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a Malaysian, said Dr Mahathir was being his usual self in making sarcastic and sharp comments, and taking the sale of Proton personally as he had a big hand in setting it up and sustaining it.
He said: “The comparison to Singapore is to imply that Malaysians seem to believe entities will be better off outside of Malaysia, and whenever they are kept in Malaysia, they would not prosper. Hence, comparing Singapore with the two coastal towns.
“But his bigger point is that the government has given up on Proton and has failed to make the necessary investments to sustain it and keep it fully Malaysian.”
Mr Wan Saiful added: “I disagree with him and I think it is time we let go. In this globalised age, we do not need to keep putting money into troubled companies and we must not be emotionally attached to any company.
“Of course, we need to ensure that the sale is done transparently and at a competitive price.”