35 Years of Proton Saga, Malaysia Boleh?

A look back at 35 years of Proton Saga.

It might probably be common knowledge by now already, seeing that every local automotive outlet has been blowing out candles for the nation’s first national car, but today (9th June) is the Proton Saga’s 35th birthday, which also means that it is Proton’s 35th anniversary!

As such, many in the industry have been recounting Proton’s greatest hits and its positive impact on Malaysia behind rose tinted glasses. But remember that 35 years is also middle age, so what better time to reflect on the real impact of the Saga had on Malaysia, especially through the eyes of the younger generation that was conceived some 15 years after the first rebadged Mitsubishi Lancer Fiore rolled off the Tanjung Malim production line. 

For the younger generation, they are constantly reminded that Proton is a point of pride during Sejarah class. With the Saga being up there with the Petronas Twin Towers as the symbol of Malaysian growth from its colonial times. The Saga was meant to portray Malaysia as the innovators of ASEAN; by being the first, and until very recently the only, country in the region to have its own homegrown automotive marque.

Having said that though, this lofty view of Proton being a point of Malaysian pride taught in the history lesson doesn’t tally with the reality of Proton during the time that this history lesson was taught somewhere in the early 2000s. Especially when the history teacher’s Iswara is literally falling apart in the school yard, with its fading paint and missing door handle. 

That image of the history teacher’s Iswara however, was the reality of Proton at that time. Proton, in a span of just 20 odd years, went from becoming the symbol of Malaysia Boleh to becoming synonymous with poor build quality and ancient technology. As demonstrated by the boxy Iswara that was still running on carburettors till as recently as 2008.

When was the last time you’ve heard of a car running on carburettors being sold as recently as 12 years ago?

Pretty much the only reason why you would have bought a Saga back then was because of its low price. It was a large car for a small amount of money. Everyone else who wanted a decent car and could afford it left in droves to the Perodua showroom instead and put down deposits on the newly launched Myvi in 2006.

An all-new Saga launched in 2008 sought to turn things around for Proton, and early impressions of the new Saga were good. The early reviews lavished praise on the new car, with its ‘Lotus handling’ and spacious interior. Early sales figures reflected these positive first impressions too.

There was optimism in the air that this was the new start Proton needed to finally succeed, and the Saga may once again claim the title of the people’s car, snatching it from the all-conquering Myvi.

But 12 years on, we know all to well how this fight went down. 

The new Saga that was supposedly the turning point for the brand couldn’t even hold a candle to the Myvi. It wasn’t that the Saga was a bad car, it was actually somewhat decent. But when compared to the Myvi, the Myvi was just a better car overall. Continued Proton build quality and the infamous CAMPRO and CVT issues were just additional nails in the Saga’s coffin.

As for the the title of people’s car, that has long since left the Proton building. Sales figure don’t lie, while the Saga sold 1.3 million in 35 years, Malaysians bought 1.1 million Myvis in a third of that time. 

The simple truth is that the Proton Saga isn’t a car that the younger generation aspires to own. Instead it relies on its low base price to tempt buyers into Saga ownership, which the same reason why people bought the Saga before this new one.

There is not much national pride to buy a car based on the cheapness of its selling price alone.

And need I reiterate that when I said Proton build quality above, it is automatically equated to mean bad build quality in everyone’s mind? Even today, we need automotive journos to remind us that the build quality of Protons today aren’t as bad as last time.

Having to constantly remind consumers that our locally produced car isn’t as bad as you think it was doesn’t really bring out that sense of patriotic pride. 

This ties neatly to the inconvenient truth of the politics that stemmed from the birth of the Saga. Many Proton skeptics subscribe to the theory of no Proton = cheaper cars. Could the Saga be blamed for starting the drought of anything remotely interesting coming to our shores at a reasonable price? 

Is the Saga the instigator that lead to fresh grads not even bothering looking at a Honda City and Toyota Vios as they are far out of the reach for anyone with a starting pay, even with a hefty loan?

The honest truth is that Saga wasn’t the cause of it. Car taxes were already going up before the launch of this sedan. However there is no hiding that the Saga did contribute greatly to the cause and it is no question that the protectionism policy of Proton may have adversely impacted the Malaysian car market. 

Protectionism as a whole though is no bad thing. Sure it sunk many a brand, the obvious one would be the entire British car industry alá British Leyland. On the flip side however, it does have a chance for local fledgling car makers to have a chance of success. Look at Hyundais and Kias now from where they were 20 years ago. 

The distinguishing factor between successful and a failed protectionism policy is the cronyism, politicking and inept, incompetent leadership behind it all that can and do tarnish a brand name. Thus forcing consumers to look elsewhere at the first opportunity. No prizes for guessing which side Proton landed on. 

It has to be said however for all the faults of Proton over the 35 long years, they did manage to mobilise the nation. Many of the older generation remember the Saga as their first car. It helped many younger Malaysians to pursue new opportunities and new lives. It was indeed the Malaysian people’s car at that time, a baton that is now carried by a Perodua. 

Cynics also tend to overlook the employment opportunities Proton has contributed to the nation. Many claim that Malaysia would not have a booming auto industry without Proton and the Saga kickstarting it all.

If you don’t look to our neighbours who have managed just as well or even better without their own local marque that is.

There are also others I expect that will say that I am being too harsh on the poor Saga. Some will no doubt say that the Myvi at the time was a rebadged version of the Daihatsu Sirion, so it is unfair to compare the homegrown Saga to the ‘import’ Myvi.

Some will even go as far as to say we will forgive the Saga’s foibles as it is a Malaysian car through and through. Designed, built and sold by Malaysians for Malaysians. Then again the same could be said about the Proton Gen 2 and the Waja. Both of which were no where on par with anything else on the open market.

And if you want to point to Malaysian pride, let’s turn our attention back to the Myvi. Where in 12 short years, Perodua went from rebadging Daihatsu’s to the third generation being completely (and competently) designed in house to produce a car that Malaysians will proudly call their own. Only the engines are licensed from Toyota but then they’re still being built in Seremban.

Meanwhile Proton had to rely on a Chinese firm to help them make halfway decent cars because they couldn’t crack it in an open market without the government’s backing. Let’s not forget that before the Geely takeover proton was losing money hand over foot and it was only loans from the Malaysian taxpayer that kept it afloat until a Geely entered the picture.

With Proton being bought over by Geely now though, Proton do make some genuinely good, albeit Chinese cars now.

The X70 is a fantastic buy, even without the proviso that it is a Proton. Here is to hope Geely will inject some life into the Saga nameplate, after 35 years of cronyism and politicking has drained the life out of it.

This story was going to end on a high note, but news just in about the 35th anniversary black edition Saga, which on the face of it just consists of yellow accents on a black car. This is confirmation enough that Proton is flogging a nearly dead horse. 

Happy Birthday, Saga!

Joshua Chin

Automotive journalist. Professional work on and Personal writing found at Instagram: @driveeveryday

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