No use of reinventing the wheels

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's visit to Japan this week rekindled my memories of the Look East Policy introduced during the early part of his 22-year rule when he became the prime minister for the first time in 1981.

The policy was not only to draw investors from Japan but also to inculcate into Malaysians the good values of the Japanese that Dr M believed had helped Japan to rise quickly from the ashes of World War II and emerge as a formidable world economic power.

There was a great deal of anticipation then, what more Dr M was the first leader of the developing world to Look East for inspiration at a time when the rest of the developing world was looking to the West.

Now Dr M has returned to power once again and a return visit to Japan was on top of his list.  During a press conference with the Japan National Media Club broadcast ‘live’ from Tokyo on Monday, Dr M admitted that; "I admire Japan greatly, it inspires me". It was Japan’s values that contributed most to the nation’s prosperity. I must admit that it was Japan which inspired me to formulate the “Look East” policy.

To me, after being to Japan recently, I too was inspired with what I saw in there. The patriotism, diligence, discipline, cleanliness, forward thinking and technological prowess are the defining attributes of the Japanese people.    

While Malaysians will always be Malaysians, they could still emulate some of the good virtues like cleanliness, diligence and patriotism. Unlike Malaysia that is blessed with natural resources, Japan has none and depends on imports of natural resources. However, it is a first world and high income nation.

How come Malaysia is still in a different league, even after it had attempted to emulate Japan? 

The answer is simple, while Japan may not have the natural resources its people are resourceful and resilient. This is also something that Malaysians should learn from the Japanese.

The sad truth is that we have not learnt much from Dr M's Look East Policy. In retrospect, the only tangible outcome from Malaysia's Look East Policy that I could best remember is Malaysia's own national car, Proton, a joint venture with Japan's Mitsubishi. Dr M was very much on the Proton driver's seat in the formative years but the company failed to move on from infancy.

No thanks to the protecionist policies, an uncompetitive supply and distribution chain, quality issues, and unimpressive and pricey models that in the end made Proton a poor choice for Malaysians.  It also failed to establish brand loyalty right from the start and took Malaysians for granted. To be fair, Proton had taken steps to remedy its shortcomings but it was too late as the automotive industry has become very competitive.

Dr M is disappointed that his brainchild now no longer belongs to Malaysia after being taken over by Geely of China that rolled out its first car much later than Proton. Hence, Dr M now aspires to start off a new national car project and argues that it will help develop local engineering capabilities.

My two cents worth opinion is that we should not reinvent the wheels. More than anything else, I still believe we have yet to learn from the mistakes in developing our own automotive sector. The Proton predicament tells all. Moreover, the Malaysian automotive market is a small one and there is already the second national car Perodua, a joint venture with Daihatsu (now under Toyota).

First and foremost the country needs to inculcate good business culture with competitiveness, integrity, transparency and forward thinking being the norm. 

Developing another national car from scratch is definitely costly and with the national debts surpassing 1 trillion ringgit, the money could certainly be put for better use. Moreover, without a national car and the accompanying protectionist policies Malaysians could afford better cars at cheaper prices. 

Moving up the technological ladder through the automotive sector like how Dr M envisages is not going to be easy either as the STEM education in the country has withered badly. Big investments have to be made in research and development to come up with our own cutting edge vehicle designs and engines. 

So, can we ever stand up to Japan's top automotive players like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Nissan today viewed as the standard bearers in automotive engineering?

I believe a better option is that we buy back Proton when it is feasible or in the immediate term push Perodua to ramp up its automotive capabilities and technology transfer. The move must be complemented with an overhaul of the education system, including skills training. I believe this is a more practical idea as it will help optimise the existing resources of the country's automotive sector.

In the end, in bringing the desired change, it is not about looking east of looking west, it is whether we are willing to learn from our own mistakes in the past.- Bernama


*This article is based on the writer's personal opinion and does not in anyway reflect on Bernama or People’s Voice stand on what is said by the writer.