To set the stage for Proton to join the big boys in the motor vehicle industry, the government and vendors must share its vision
When Proton Holdings Bhd unveiled its first concept car at the 80th Geneva International Motor Show last week, company leaders hailed the start of a new era. For the first time, the national carmaker could look forward to holding its own against international peers.
The concept car not only gave Proton an opportunity to showcase its achievements at an event touted as one of the world's largest and most important for motor vehicles to make their premieres, but also, analysts and industry observers said, signified its coming of age as a global player.
It saw Proton partnering an international design house for the first time. The concept car, dubbed "EMAS", was designed by Italdesign Giugiaro SpA (IDG), considered by those in motoring circles as a design house that can put a car manufacturer on the world stage.
One may then ask, "Why does Proton need to do that when it has been exporting its cars since 1986? Wouldn't that already make it a global player?".
Well, yes. But it is a very small one in global terms. To make it into the big league alongside the likes of Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Ford, Peugeot and even South Korea's Hyundai Kia, Proton still has a long way to go.
To date, response from most motoring experts to the partnership between Proton and IDG has been positive. After all, here was a partnership with an Italian company famed for the designs of a wide variety of concept and production cars, including the Delorean DMC-12, Lotus Esprit, Fiat Punto, Ferrari GG50, Maserati 3200 GT, Hyundai Sonata, Lamborghini Cala and Volkswagen Golf.
More importantly, the partnership shows Proton's acceptance of the fact that it does not yet have all the expertise to design and develop cars, especially for the world market, and its willingness to seek help before it is too late.
At a press conference held on the sidelines of the motor show, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is also Proton's founder and adviser, acknowledged weakness in the company, saying that it had been making cars meeting domestic requirements and using the same approach for international markets.
This resulted in difficulties in export destinations like Europe and the US, where stringent safety and emission standards, among other things, had to be met.
Of course, the global economic downturn also made Proton realise it could no longer remain as a "jaguh kampung", or local champion. It cannot rely just on domestic sales because the small size of the market means it will not be able to achieve the economies of scale to remain financially viable.
Thus, after demonstrating "surprising" resilience over the past 25 years and silencing its critics by making money when bigger players were having a difficult time, Proton is now reversing a 25-year-old policy and turning its focus towards the world market.
Still, to set the stage for Proton to join the big boys in the motor vehicle industry, the government and vendors must share its vision.
While it has yet to decide which local vendors will supply the parts for the EMAS when it goes into production, Proton should nonetheless encourage the government to allow it greater autonomy in making decisions so that it can select the vendors based on the quality of their products.
There is nothing unpatriotic about awarding a job based on the vendors' ability to deliver. It is, instead, the vendors' patriotic duty to ensure that they are capable of supplying high-quality parts, not only to Proton but also other carmakers.
Gone are the days when local vendors can rely just on Proton for survival.