Malaysia's new automotive policy aims to prepare the market for trade liberalisation, while easing the pain for its local carmakers.
In the second half of January, Malaysia's government unveiled the long-awaited revisions to its National Automotive Policy (NAP). The changes are designed to prepare domestic automakers for the imminent creation of the ten-member Asian Economic Community (AEC) and to carve out a role for the country in the regional automotive industry. However, the NAP 2014 also extends some of the protectionist measures that shield Malaysia's two indigenous manufacturers, Proton and Perodua, from international competition.
The most positive aspects of the new NAP 2014 aim to boost inward foreign investment by promoting Malaysia as a future hub for energy-efficient vehicles in the AEC. The new document broadens the definition of a green car, which is no longer tied either to a specific technology, such as petrol-electric hybrids or plug-in electric vehicles, or to engine size. The government will now start issuing licences to foreign producers to make small, energy efficient vehicles in Malaysia, hoping that such vehicles will also be exported elsewhere in the region.
The policy includes incentives and direct financing measuring M$2bn (US$600m). The ultimate goal is to boost exports of green vehicles to at least 200,000 units by 2020, with exports of automotive components reaching M$10bn at the same time. Instead of trying to compete in the mass car market, therefore, the Malaysian government is aiming to develop a market niche that could become a key driver of the automotive industry in coming years.
Yet Malaysia will face stiff regional competition even within this niche. Indonesia also has its low-cost green car programme, which is helping to attract foreign investment into the sector. Thailand has an eco-car programme, which aims to turn the country's into the ASEAN region’s main production hub for small, fuel-efficient city cars. It is also targeting green-car exports to countries outside the ASEAN trade block.
These two countries already outgun Malaysia in terms of both auto production and car exports. Thailand's policy of market liberalization has attracted investment from Japanese manufacturers and parts suppliers, which have built factories there over the past decade and a half. Vehicle production in Thailand is now around 2.5m a year, while Indonesia's output has reached 1.2m. Both those countries have also emerged as major regional vehicle exporters. Malaysia, meanwhile, produces fewer than 600,000 vehicles a year, with exports low.
Part of the blame for this lies with Malaysia’s comparatively small market size and lower population. But part of the problem lies with its government's ambivalent attitude towards international trade in the auto industry. Malaysia's car industry was the brainchild of long-serving Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who established Proton in the early 1980s, producing vehicles designed by Mitsubishi (Japan). The second car company, Perodua, emerged a decade later. The original NAP was published in 2006 with a goal of tilting the playing field in favour of domestic carmakers within a framework of controlled industry liberalisation. The first revision to the NAP was effected in 2009.
Initially, protectionist policies benefited the country’s automakers, making Malaysia a regional automotive leader in the 1990s. Without competition and trade opportunities to push the companies' development, however, the quality and technological sophistication of their vehicles suffered. Proton saw its market share drop sharply once it shifted to making proprietary vehicles. Perodua, in which Japan's Daihatsu owns a 20% stake, has been the market leader for over a decade, even though its vehicles are not competitive in international markets either.