In early August 2019 the Malaysian Government announced that a company called DreamEDGE had been selected for Malaysia’s third car project. Little is known of the people associated with this project but they were selected on the basis that they possessed some automobile engineering expertise and other attributes necessary to manufacture a prototype passenger vehicle with some involvement by Daihatsu, a well established Japanese motor vehicle manufacturer.
One would wish this project success and hope it will create more jobs, help develop greater design and engineering skills, improve the marketing and promotional skills locally and abroad among Malaysians and find a respectable place for the car in world rankings. Malaysia already produces about 500000 motor cars annually and with this new car there will more cars on the road, perhaps as many as twelve million in good running order. There is also a large inventory of reconditioned and used cars which are available at attractive prices. In terms of world car production Malaysia’s market share is small, at less than one percent.
Cars are a very significant part of life in Malaysia. A noted academic once observed that in the old days when a young man brought home to his kampong a new car( usually a British made vehicle) the whole kampong would be abuzz and excited about it. He also commented that in the 1990s when someone brought to a kampong a brand new BMW the talk would be on how he obtained the means to acquire it.
Today’s kampongs are generally highly urbanised, easily accessible with excellent roads and some kampong houses have proper enclosed garages and a brand new car, whatever its make, does not generate much excitement unless if it is a Rolls Royce or a marque in that league. More than 80 percent of Malaysians live in urban areas and a substantial proportion of them would return by road to their hometowns for festive occasions.
The car is indispensable in the lives of most Malaysians today and it is often the first major investment that most individuals would make when starting their working life. This commitment to a car would entail a down payment, monthly instalments, annual insurance and road tax charges, parking fees, regular maintenance and servicing costs and if one is not particularly careful fines for parking and traffic violations.
Given an option most Malaysians would prefer to use public transport given the high cost of owning a car and the traffic congestion that affects most urban areas.
The coverage by public transport is however not satisfactory although it has improved in recent years with Grab and other transport services. Cars however are almost an essential part of the lives of most Malaysians as they are a convenience, provide mobility and a great deal of independence to move from place to place.
In 1985 when the first Malaysia-made Proton car rolled out there was much enthusiasm for it. Within five years it became the most visible motorcar in the country.
The Proton Saga was a modest and reliable sedan and the more affluent Malaysians did not find that it had any novelty and opted, if they could afford, to buy imported vehicles.
Of the foreign imported vehicle makes some of them were assembled locally while others came completely built up. In order to protect the local industry the Malaysian Government imposed various punitive levies on car imports and sometimes the retail price of a motor car in Malaysia could be as high as twice the cost of a similar vehicle in another country.
The car is also an important status symbol and for this reason partly some Malaysians make substantial investments and sacrifices when acquiring one. Some affluent Malaysians would own a collection of ten or more premium cars in the Bentley, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce league with special, same single digit number plates.
In recent years under the Najib administration(2009-2018) transport authorities began selling various novelty car registration prefixes. The most notable ones were associated with the former prime minister’s passions and preoccupations. SAM signified ‘Saya Anak Malaysia’ while TIM stood for Transformasi 1Malaysia and then there were the ‘Patriot’ registration plates. There was 1M4U which meant 1Malaysia for Youth. The most imaginative and vain one was the VIP prefix which many Malaysians bid for in view of its obvious meaning but it was officially to promote Visit Pahang year(2016). There was another typically cliched Najib initiative for one Malaysia, GIM, or Gagasan Satu Malaysia. Bidding was invited for these and other prefixes that were introduced during Najib’s tenure and vast sums of revenue was earned from the more affluent segment of the car owning society. The competitive bidding for the single digit ’1’ is particularly intense and bidders are known to have succeeded in winning these and other single digit numbers by paying as much as more than a million Ringgit for each special number.
Certain repeat numbers like 88 and 888 also attract high bids. It is not uncommon to see vehicles with these special prefixes followed by single digit numbers in the more affluent parts of most urban areas. It is also not unusual that these vehicles with vanity plates also have alongside their registration number a badge with a state crest. On closer scrutiny one would be able to venture a guess that the owner of the vehicle is a recipient of a state or federal title. These titles would enable the holder to be addressed as a Tan Sri, Dato’ Seri or Datuk. There are, needless to say, many holders of such titles who do not flaunt them on their cars. Within these broad brush stroke of owners of luxury cars there also elements which are significantly different and individualistic. One well known social worker for instance, drives around in a battered Beetle which has seen better days.
In addition to these outward signs of social standing these vehicle would also display on their front windscreen the stickers of the elitist clubs where the vehicle owner is a member. These stickers are provided to facilitate entry to specific security, gated or private residential areas. If a car displays ten to twelve such stickers it does necessarily denote a particularly social or sports loving personality!
While these stickers are meant to provide easy identification for selected officials, royalty and associated staff to security and restricted areas such emblems on their vehicles also betray their well recognised privileged place in society.
In addition to these outward symbols of importance it is also possible to identify very very important persons from the kind of tint that the glass windshields which these cars have. Malaysia’s current transport minister has relaxed the rules on the kind of tinting that cars can have. By allowing such heavy tinting this Minister has made it somewhat difficult to view the insides of these cars. Surprisingly there has been muted reaction from the police and customs authorities whose tasks have been rendered more burdensome in terms of quick facial recognition of lawbreakers and smugglers.
Since the Pakatan Harapan Government assumed office in May 2018 there has been a general reduction of road tolls and the stabilisation of petrol prices. Car prices however continue to be high compared to most neighbouring ASEAN countries and a reduction in their prices would assist most Malaysian households. Car are indispensable for most households because of the convenience and independence they provide.
Driving habits and standards in Malaysia are however generally deplorable. With about 6000 road-related deaths annually Malaysia has one of the world’s highest rates for traffic casualties. About half this figure affects motorcyclists who can often be seen daringly weaving in and out of fast, slow or stalled traffic. Speeding, tailgating, hooting and the flashing of headlights and an occasional rude finger sign are normal fare on Malaysian roads. On our highways the fast lanes observe speed limits more in breach and brevity than in conformity. It is virtually impossible to observe speed limits during normal driving as one can be subjected to polite taunts, tailgating, aggressive hand signs and sometimes road rage.
Our friends from Brunei, Singapore and Thailand adapt quite quickly to the road realities in Malaysia but for the new drivers from most other countries where it is polite and normal to drive in sober and stately fashion Malaysia promises a new experience.
Newspapers in Malaysia often carry reports of road rage incidents but they are an infrequent occurrence as it is possible to drive defensively and avoid unnecessary incidents.
While the condition of Malaysia’s roads have improved considerably in the past two decades and have attained high standards the country is still a long way from producing responsible motor vehicle users who show good manners and civic consciousness on the roads. Truck and bus drivers also tend to set their own turf rules when overtaking and can pose a risk to other road users too.
The country is in desperate need of repeated road safety campaigns, re-education of errant road users and the efficient enforcement of traffic rules. In certain congested areas there is a need to instal closed circuit cameras to monitor the antics and aggression that some Malaysian drivers are capable of displaying.
Dato’ M Santhananaban, a retired Malaysian ambassador has 45 years of public service experience .