An open letter to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Chairman of Proton


You said that your experience with Proton cars is wonderful and I am sure it is but if there is a problem, would you personally bring the car to the service centre? Would you have to apply for leave to do so?

Chips Yap, Agenda Daily

Proton’s Chairman, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, wrote in his blog that Malaysian journalists did not write about the new engine the company has developed in a way that ‘celebrates’ the event. Our editor, Chips Yap, responds with an open letter which he shares with readers where he not only explains why the enthusiasm might not be there but also offers some views on what is making Malaysians hesitant about buying Proton cars. His views are his own and not necessarily shared by PROTO Malaysia, which owns the Motor Trader website and also publishes the weekly magazine of the same name.

Dear Tun Dr Mahathir,

In a recent entry in your blog, you expressed disappointment that Malaysian journalists did not see the significance of a new Proton engine. As your public comment mentions the media, I feel it is appropriate for me, a Malaysian motoring journalist, to respond in a public manner as well.

In your view, it was an event to ‘celebrate’ and perhaps you expected the media to be more enthusiastic in the way they wrote, giving more praise for such an achievement. I can understand your frustration that The Event was not given more publicity but you should not feel that the media is against Proton.

As someone who has covered and written about Proton from the day you announced the National Car Project 32 years ago, I  believe I have certainly done my part to help Proton, even to the point where my credibility with readers has been at stake.

Let’s start with the CAMPRO engine, Proton’s first own engine. I remember the great promises made about this engine and how it was even benchmarked against a 1.8-litre BMW engine (though the generation of the engine was never really specified). It was an impressive achievement and we all reported it with much enthusiasm. In fact, a bit later on, I believe motorists in Australia were even alerted by a billboard to the fact that a Malaysian brand called Proton could offer ‘Asia’s answer to BMW’.

Yet when the engine went into production, it was ‘incomplete’. The much-touted Cam-Profiling feature was not present and as a result, the character of the engine was not as dynamic as what we told Malaysian buyers to expect. There was poor torque at the lower end of the rev range – which is where most people would be driving.

But we didn’t condemn Proton for short-changing customers and we even did our best to try to highlight other areas such as the Lotus-tuned chassis which was and still is one of the strong points of Proton cars. In fact, I have always maintained that Proton’s engineers are world-class and can develop a car as good as those from the global players.

And then there was the power window matter. I remember how, in 1998, the Proton CEO had expressed such distress at seeing Proton owners having to open their doors – instead of just winding down the glass – to pay toll. He promised to fix that matter once and for all and when the Waja was launched, he spoke of the power window system having been tested ‘beyond normal service limits’ and it did not fail. We reported all that as we believed Proton had really gone to a new level in build quality.

In fact, I was even impressed when I learnt that a batch of cars with a problem with the manual transmission (the bolts had been incorrectly tightened) were recalled. Rather than write things like ‘See… even a new model has problems!’, I praised Proton for its pro-active move and said that it showed the company was serious about quality. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, after that, Proton made it almost like OSA that any fault must not be acknowledged. The fuel pump matter was never admitted even though it was a very serious thing. Perhaps it was thought that even a small mention of a fault would dent that image of the Waja being ‘perfect’.

And then the power window failures started. Through a popular public forum, I came to read about numerous cases and in one case, the owner was really furious about having to use an umbrella to cover the window opening as the glass jammed during a heavy storm. Initially, I thought it was just ‘one of those things’ and often, I have written that in mass production, when you make thousands of parts daily, there will be a few that are defective. I expected that Proton would get the problem fixed in time, just like other manufacturers handled such issues.

But the problems went on and on and the number of failures built up – and strangely, there was never a recall. Our readers began to ask us whether we had been paid (or pressured) to say good things about Proton. It clearly affected many owners as it became so ‘epidemic’ that, eventually, it came to be associated with Proton’s name. Even today,  mention ‘Proton’ and many people would say ‘power window problem’.

Then came the Gen2 and again, we were told how the ‘new’ power window system had a different design, also tested very extensively and also did not fail. Again, we wrote that the power window problems ‘are finally over’. We believed what the CEO told us. We were glad that the episode had ended… but it had not. And this time, many of us were concerned that our own credibility was really at risk. How could we be writing that the power windows would no longer fail and yet people were having the same problems? It wasn’t just hearsay – the testcar that was loaned to me had a failure too! But you know what? I didn’t mention it. Partly, I was embarrassed to have to say that it had happened after writing that it was gone.

If you read articles that appeared after the Gen2, you will find that in many instances, we wrote about the claims but we also added a line about how we did not know about the long-term reliability. Our experience was often a few days with a testcar and most of the time, nothing would fail within that short period. However, for someone who bought one and used it for months and years, the experience could be rather different.

So perhaps it is a sense of caution that led us to write in a way that did not seem to ‘celebrate’ the first ignition of Proton’s new engine. Yes, the achievement is commendable because a company with the small annual volume of Proton need not develop its own engine. And if you consider the engine in the context of powerplants in the industry today, it is not remarkable. The block is still of cast iron which makes the engine heavy and impacts fuel efficiency, and virtually all modern engines have aluminium blocks. But rather than criticise this point, I instead explained to our readers why it might still have some validity. So you cannot say that we are not doing our part to support Proton.

You may say that the quality issues and the power window problems are all ‘in the past’, why bring them up and why should they be an issue today? But that is the very point which remains in many people’s minds about Proton quality. When I suggested to you that Proton’s image was damaged by the quality problems of the past, you disagreed but it is really the crux of why many people are hesitant about buying Protons. It is not because they won’t support Malaysian products and prefer ‘foreign’ brands (even though the majority of cars sold are made in Malaysia by Malaysians). It is because they fear that they may experience problems – or they heard their fathers curse the car when they themselves were small.

Imagine if you were a small child in a Waja and the power windows kept failing (among other problems) and you kept hearing your father constantly saying how he regretted buying a Proton. When you grow up and can buy a car, would you not remember those unpleasant episodes and would you choose a Proton? It is a lesson for Proton that you do not mess around with quality because of the long-term damage it can cause to the brand image. I am sure you are familiar with the term ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

Of course, you may say that Proton covers the car with a warranty so if anything goes wrong, the rectification will be done at no cost to the customer. And if I remember correctly, there was a ‘lifetime warranty’ for the power windows although I am not sure if that is still being given. But as I have often said in seminars, you can give a warranty for the whole life of the car and yet, if the car keeps having problems and the customer has to keep going to the service centre to get it fixed, it is as good as not giving a warranty. The warranty may save money but it sure wastes people’s time, for which there is no compensation.

This is something which you will not fully comprehend because of your position and who you are, and I say this with no disrespect. You said that your experience with Proton cars is wonderful and I am sure it is but if there is a problem, would you personally bring the car to the service centre? Would you have to apply for leave to do so? But your typical Proton customer has to do that and sometimes, he may also be without a car if the problem takes time to fix. He cannot just hop into a Perdana to go to work the next day and he may have to take a taxi or a bus. Or the wife may not be able to send the children to school.

It is not unusual for top managements of car companies to be ‘disconnected’ with what their customers really experience. They get cars supplied by the company, maintained by the company (so they will always be in tip-top condition) and periodically, their cars are changed so they may never ‘own’ a car for as long as their customers would. Should there be a problem, chances are the service centre will come and pick it up or their driver will send it there. They would not suffer the sort of inconvenience a real owner would experience.

The extent of ‘disconnect’ can be seen in one story about Lee Iacocca, a former Ford President (who laid claim to being the ‘father of the Mustang) and then he went on to run Chrysler. After he retired, he started to personally drive for the first time in decades. One day, he went to a petrol station and he told the attendant to fill up the tank. He was shocked when the attendant rudely told him ‘do it yourself’. You see, in the many decades he had been an auto executive, he had never had to fill petrol himself and so he had simply not realised that things had changed and motorists had to pump their own fuel.

This is not to say that you would not take the trouble to find out for yourself. In fact, of all our prime ministers, I admired you for going around town on your own (no police to force other motorists aside to make way for you) to see things as they are. I saw you on a few occasions in your Pajero and I felt that it was good that you observed things without people behaving ‘abnormally’ just because they knew you were around.

And if you are willing to spend some time going to the various forums and websites and reading what Proton owners comment and complain about, I am sure you will get a better feel of what the real issues are. You have already discovered the value of social media so I am sure you would not respond that ‘all that internet stuff is rubbish’, as one of your former CEOs did when I urged him to look at what people were complaining about the Waja.

In contrast, the people at Perodua were scanning such forums daily to look out for complaints and trends in problems so they could investigate quickly. I know this because I was at their office one day and was surprised to see a stack of print-outs of forum messages and sections circled for further attention. And they also took the JD Power quality reports very seriously rather than dismiss them just because they showed the company as being way down in rankings (as another company did).

So telling people to try a Proton and they will be convinced enough to buy one is not how you should be going about it. For many who do try a Proton, I am sure they will be impressed… but at the back of their minds, there will still be that question: is it reliable enough? All consumers want is a reliable car because it may be the only one they have; it doesn’t even have to be advanced.

You may ask ‘is there no hope for Proton then?’ There is still hope but it depends on whether you are willing to run Proton as a real business. Everyone in the market is running a business and in business, you have to make hard decisions even if they hurt people. I would say that you need to run Proton the way you ran the country when you were PM – with an iron fist.

There is hope because, if you remember, when Japanese cars first appeared in Malaysia, they had a ‘milo tin’ image. People were used to the more robust European cars and these light and seemingly fragile cars from Japan didn’t seem like they could last. Even the image of Japanese products was poor in those days. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, was distressed to observe that in the early 1960s, Japan was known only for being good at making those little paper umbrellas on top of ice cream sundaes.

But the Japanese understood that for their cars to be accepted, they had to be reliable. If they could give their customers a good ownership experience, perhaps they would come back for a second one later on and even recommend it to their friends. There’s a saying that a satisfied customer will tell 5 friends but an unhappy one will tell 10 friends [of his bad experience].

And look where the Japanese brands are today – respected globally and benchmarked for quality. It took time and they never took anything for granted, never felt that they knew it all. And even now, when Toyota is No. 1 in the world, its management keeps reminding employees to never become complacent because it is very easy for a determined competitor to beat them – as they beat Ford and GM.

You are also on record as saying that other countries have protected their car industries more strictly than Malaysia. That is true but you have never mentioned that in Japan and Korea, there was more than one domestic brand and they fought among themselves. True, they didn’t have to worry about foreign brands challenging them but they did not have it so easy as they each had to work hard for their share of the market. And I am sure you will agree that competition is an important ingredient to development; without it, how do you know if you are good and not just a jaguh kampung? How do you motivate your people to push harder when it was so easy to become No.1 and stay there?

Sadly, Proton was denied of such important learning experiences in its early years. Perhaps becoming No.1 brand within just a couple of years was detrimental as it gave the wrong impression that being a successful car manufacturer is very easy. It is a point I have often mentioned when asked to talk about Proton – the idea was fine and a good catalyst to industrialisation… but the execution was flawed, notwithstanding the special privileges the company enjoyed to give it an advantage.

I have many more things I could share with you but I am not sure if you are interested in frank comments that are not necessarily positive about Proton. Like you, I am not an engineer but over 39 years, I have visited numerous factories of other manufacturers, met engineers and people who run car companies, tested over 1,000 different vehicles, followed industry trends and gained much knowledge. In fact, I wrote to you in 1984 to suggest that Malaysian motoring journalists be ‘recruited’ as part of the National Car Project because we could share what we knew and as Malaysians, we would be very happy to do so. But I never got a reply and it would only be some 20 years later that Datuk Seri Syed Zainal Abidin would draw on our knowledge to help his engineers gain more insights.

On a final note – about Malaysians not being proud of their own Malaysian car. I think we all were at one time. I remember in the early 1990s, I was in Frankfurt and I saw someone parking a Proton 412 (the Wira). I ran up to him and proudly told him that I was from the country that made his car. I asked him how it was and he gave me a thumbs-up and I thanked him for buying our car. I felt proud at that moment.

I believe that Malaysians are not shunning Proton because they are not proud of it. They want to be but it is hard for them to give their support in the way you expect – by buying more cars. If you can make Quality and Reliability the main objective and prove that Protons are truly reliable, I am sure that the indifference and reluctance will change.

Respectfully yours,
Chips Yap