It’s not always the fault of the Malays

Raja Petra Kamarudin

Motorcycles have always been in my blood. I got my first taste of a motorcycle at a very tender age; in fact, before I was even circumcised yet. My grandfather was then the Governor of Penang and I was staying with him for the school holidays. One of the Residency boys had a Honda Cub which I commandeered and rode around the Residency grounds. Since then I have always been passionate about motorcycles, with sex coming in a very close second. That was in the early 1960s of course, so invariably since then my priorities have reversed somewhat.

It was not until I was 16 was I allowed to own my first bike, the age when I could legally ride a motorcycle. It was a Yamaha 90cc which I upgraded to a Yamaha 100 Twin after my sixth crash. I crashed 13 times in two years; once during the Malaysian Grand Prix of 1968 (so who says 13 is an unlucky number?). Other bikes I have owned are Suzuki 250, Honda 350, Honda 450, Yamaha 650, Kawasaki 900, Kawasaki 1000, Yamaha 650 Turbo and Yamaha 535, in that order.

My dream bikes of the late 1960s-early 1970s were the Honda Four (750cc) that hit the world like a Tsunami and the Kawasaki Mach 3 (500cc triple) that could burn off your tyres in no time at all. The British Trident and Bonneville were also my favourites, but certainly beyond my reach since they were not available in Malaysia.

In 1972, I decided to try my hand at dealing in motorcycles. Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were already represented in Malaysia but Kawasaki was still absent from the market. I approached Choong Motors of Petaling Jaya and suggested that Mr Choong consider importing Kawasaki motorcycles into Malaysia. I offered to joint-venture with him. He would finance the operation and I would help him run it; a perfect partnership for someone without any start-up capital. Choong did not think it was viable though and he shot the idea down. Later, when Med-Bumikar-MARA took up the Kawasaki franchise and it proved a roaring success, Choong told me he felt like kicking himself (Choong Motors later became Med-Bumikar-MARA’s dealer for Kawasaki).

“I did not take you seriously,” said Choong. “After all, you are a hippie so I did not think you were cut out to be a businessman”. My shoulder-length hair and black leather jacket probably did not give Choong the right impression about me.

In 1976, I acquired the Terengganu agency for Kawasaki motorcycles from Med-Bumikar-MARA. The best seller was the scrambler or off-road (dirt) models and to promote it I organised dirt bike races on a seven-acre plot of land I bought in Cendering on the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu. Kawasaki soon gave Yamaha and Suzuki a run for their money in Terengganu.

I suffered my first skirmish with the government soon after that. The Kawasaki scramblers were CBU (completely built up) so they need to be inspected by the RIMV (Registrar and Inspector of Motor Vehicles; know called JPJ). CKD (completely knocked down) bikes do not need to go through this hassle.

The RIMV inspectors however wanted ‘under the table’ money (bribes) of RM50 per bike before they would approve the bikes. I refused to pay so they rejected my bikes as ‘un-road worthy’. I was stuck. I could not register the bikes I had sold.

I sent the registration documents to Kuantan and got the bikes registered there instead. This involved obtaining a change of address card for my buyers as most of them had Terengganu addresses on their identity cards. RIMV soon found out about my scam and one day they set up a road block and issued summonses to all those scrambler owners with Pahang registration plates.

One of my customers, a teacher, came to see me to complain that he had been issued a summons. I asked him to hand me the summons and leave the whole thing to me to sort out. I was going to challenge RIMV in court. I appointed Lawyer Lee as the solicitor to handle our case and, on the day of the case, the teacher, Lawyer Lee, and I went to court. The magistrate, Darshan Singh, went berserk when we said we were going to fight the case. “You foolish fellow!” he shouted. “We will hold the hearing now!”

But the RIMV officer who had issued the summons was not in court so the case had to be postponed to another date. He had assumed we would plead guilty and would pay the fine so he did not bother turning up. I must say Lawyer Lee did a fine job indeed. By the time he finished arguing our case, Darshan Singh did a complete U-turn and started blasting the RIMV officer instead. Darshan Singh looked like he was the defence lawyer rather than the judge. We won the case and it hit the newspapers. RIMV was outraged. I was blacklisted for many years thereafter until the Terengganu RIMV officers transferred out to another state. But they never dared touch my bikes again and we continued selling CBU bikes with Pahang registration plates.

Sadly, Med-Bumikar-MARA lost the Kawasaki agency soon after that when they went into a cashflow crunch. I then approached Wing Ming (later called Motorcycle Industries) and acquired the agency for Yamaha. Wing Ming too went bust later, so I had to approach Guan Hoe to become their Suzuki dealer. Not long after that Guan Hoe too went bust. Sheesh! Am I a jinx or what? All these people had been in business for years but no sooner I become their dealer they go bust.

Yamaha eventually transferred into the hands of Hong Leong. I immediately approached Hong Leong and again took up the agency for Yamaha, and prayed hard they too would not go bust. They did not off course.

I bought two double-story shop lots in Kuala Terengganu and set one up one as a showroom and the other as a service centre complete with pneumatic tools, hoist and so on, at par with a Proton service centre today. (That was how ‘up-to-date’ our service centre was 30 years ago, the era when Proton was not even born yet).

I then set up a dirt bike racing team and brought in the latest motocross racing bikes for the team that I named ‘The Terengganu Dirt Rats’. I sent the racing team to the Shah Alam racing circuit for training under the tutorship of one of Japan’s top dirt bike racers.

Our first motocross race in Cendering, Terengganu, attracted an astonishing crowd of 10,000 spectators. The entire road, which was the main Kelantan-Pahang link, was jammed up for three hours and no one could move an inch either way. Unfortunately, one spectator was killed by a bike that ploughed into the crowd and the ambulance could not get through in time because of the massive jam, the first time Terengganu had ever seen a traffic jam. Wan Mutallib Embong, the PAS kingpin and lawyer who was acting for the family, wanted to sue my pants off but they did not have a case against me. (I had invited the police to help with traffic control but they did not bother turning up).

With all this effort at promoting dirt bikes, I soon became known as the ‘Scrambler King’. My bike sales touched 200 to 300 units a month. In time I became the third largest Yamaha dealer in Malaysia. The top dealer was Fortune Motors of Ipoh and the second was Hock Eng Teck of Kota Bharu. Yes, that’s right, number one was in Ipoh, number two in Kota Bharu, and number three was in Kuala Terengganu; none in Kuala Lumpur.

Hong Leong gave each dealer RM500,000 in hire purchase financing. I, however, was given RM2 million, something none of the other dealers were enjoying. Nevertheless, I was buying the bikes on Letters of Credit (LC) while the other dealers paid by cheque, 60 days after the bikes were delivered.

Not only was I the number three dealer in Malaysia, but I was the only Malay dealer in the top 200 list. To find another Malay dealer you would have to look at the top 300 dealers’ list where the next Malay dealer was number 299. In the top 500 dealers’ list there were only about six or seven Malays, mostly selling a couple of units a month and who could hardly qualify as proper bike dealers.

Then Hong Leong started appointing other Yamaha dealers in Terengganu, all Chinese of course. They set up shop for awhile but gave up after they found they could not compete with me. I set up the Terengganu Motorcycle Dealers Association to try and unite all the bike dealers, with me, the only Malay, as association Chairman. Our objective was to try to end price undercutting, especially between the two Honda super-dealers, Hock Kee Seng and Tai Seng, who are actually cousins but bitterly at war with each other. Of course, I also had a hidden agenda. I wanted to use the association to counter Hong Leong’s move of appointing more Yamaha dealers; sort of like a cartel or bike dealers Mafia.

I asked Hong Leong why they were ‘disturbing the market’. I was already their top Malay dealer in Malaysia and in their top ten list. Why appoint new dealers in Kuala Terengganu? In fact, those dealers they were appointing were actually my sub-dealers who they were pinching. Their reply was because the sub-dealers had complained I refuse to supply them the bikes they needed.

It is not that I was starving them of supplies. The sub-dealers owed me a total of RM1.5 million and they were not paying me what they owed (mostly in hire purchase facilities). I in turn had to buy the bikes from Hong Leong on Letters of Credit. I was practically financing the sub-dealers from my own pocket. Once Hong Leong supplies them directly they will not pay me what they owe since they no longer require me for supplies. I could no longer use the supply of bikes as leverage to collect my debts and I would stand to lose more than RM1 million if I was forced to write-off the outstanding amount. I could sue them of course, but many had since changed the names of their companies and they had no assets I could claim against. (I eventually did have to write-off RM1.5 million, thanks to Hong Leong).

To control or restrict my sales (for reasons still unknown), Hong Leong starved me of supplies. They also forced me to buy models (Passola) that could not sell before they would supply me models that were saleable. I eventually had to just give away those un-saleable stocks free to whoever wanted them. That was the price I had to pay to get my hands on stocks of Yamaha.

One day, Hong Leong supplied me half a lorry-load of bikes. The lorry driver told me that the other half lorry-load was for another Chinese dealer. Half lorry? I needed five lorry-loads. I had orders backed up for two months which I could not service. Then the lorry driver told me that the Chinese dealer was also getting another full lorry-load that was being unloaded even as he spoke.

I went berserk. I was getting half a lorry-load of bikes and the Chinese dealer was getting one and a half lorry-loads. I had 200 outstanding orders and the Chinese dealer was just stocking the bikes, and on credit on top of that. No wonder my customers were cancelling their orders and asking for their deposits to be refunded. They were walking over to the Chinese dealer who had surplus stocks and were buying from him.

I screamed at my boys to rampas (seize) the entire lorry-load and unload everything into our shop. The lorry driver panicked and begged me not to do so. I shouted at him to sit down and shut up if he wanted to leave Kuala Terengganu in one piece. He asked to use my phone to call his head office which I agreed. He explained what was happening to his bosses in KL and passed the phone over to me.

Hong Leong pleaded with me to release the lorry. I was adamant. I told them I was taking the entire lorry-load of bikes whether they agreed or not. Since the Chinese dealer was already getting one lorry-load of bikes I wanted this full lorry-load. I would have been prepared to share this lorry-load with the Chinese dealer if this one lorry-load was all there was. But it is not fair to give him one and a half lorry-loads and me only half a lorry-load when I had 200 outstanding orders; and he needed these bikes just for stocking purposes, which he would use to steal my customers.

My wife, who was also my business partner, was equally outraged. “Hong Leong is Chinese and they cannot stand to see a Malay succeed,” said my wife.

I was surprised she said that. “You are Chinese,” I said. “How can you say something as racial as that about your own race?”

“Because I am Chinese so I know,” she replied.

Hong Leong’s Kuantan manager visited me soon after that and we ended up in a heated argument. “We cannot allow you to be the sole Yamaha dealer in Terengganu,” he told me. “That would be too dangerous. You can hold Hong Leong to ransom. What if one day you decide to give up the agency? Yamaha in Terengganu will die. So we need to build up other dealers so that you do not become too powerful.”

On hearing this, my wife blew her top. “Yamaha can fuck off! My husband built up the Yamaha market in Terengganu. Before this Honda was the top seller in Terengganu. Now Yamaha is the top brand. Before this no one wanted to even sell Yamaha because it could not sell.”

My wife told the Hong Leong manager that we no longer wished to sell Yamaha. We were going to give up the agency. It was indeed a sad day for me. I loved bikes and I loved the motorcycle business. But my wife is one determined person. Once she says something she means it. As I said, we lost RM1.5 million once we wound down our motorcycle business. And that hurt. I decided to focus on my Mercedes Benz agency instead which I had acquired in the early 1980s and which had grown in leaps and bounds.

Yes, we read a lot about how Malays can’t do business and how they do not know how to succeed in the business world. Sometimes it could be that the Malays are not being allowed to succeed. No doubt, one swallow does not make a summer and my case may not be reflective of norm, but that was my personal experience in a business that is Chinese dominated.

One day, some time in the early-1990s, I met Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz and asked her, “How many Malays are there in the motorcycle business?” She did not know so I asked her to check. She asked for the list of motorcycle dealers and was surprised when she could not find ten names in the list of one thousand.

Oh, after I got out of the motorcycle business, Honda recaptured the Terengganu market, and until today Yamaha has not been able to regain the top notch in Terengganu. I suppose it needs a Malay dealer to help Yamaha become the top seller in Terengganu again. Hey, don’t look at me, I am retired!