How Malaysia’s auto industry can recover from COVID-19 setbacks

Photo: Siyuwj / CC BY-SA

The auto industry is a significant contributor to Malaysia’s economy and a source of national pride. The sector was hit hard by COVID-19 but is already showing signs of recovery.

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The motor industry was severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As supply lines from China dried up, factories all over the world shut down as lockdowns brought both production and purchasing to a halt. Car makers from BMW to Honda and Toyota posted losses while organisers cancelled motor events and shows.

In Malaysia, the impact was initially severe, as sales crashed, down by 99% in April when just 141 cars were sold. As the government imposed Movement Control Orders (MCOs), nobody was out and about buying cars. As a result of the lockdowns, industry volume dropped by 41% for the first two quarters despite a governmental stimulus package.

In June, the government suspended sales taxes on locally assembled cars in a bid to get the industry moving again, and it seems to have worked. June figures revealed a 5% rise compared to earlier in the year, and new vehicle registrations were up by 92% as dealers responded to the government’s tax cuts by dropping prices.

Furthermore, Malaysia’s production levels across the board are bouncing back quicker than expected. Although down 0.4% year-on-year in June, economists predicted a figure more than ten times worse, and it is a marked improvement from the 21.6% downturn in May. Nevertheless, production for the first quarter is down 17.9% from last year, and the trend looks set to continue.

What impact has COVID-19 had on Malaysia’s national car manufacturers?

From humble beginnings, when six factories were launched in 1967, today Malaysia sells hundreds of thousands of cars such as the Proton Saga and Perodua Aruz to customers at home and abroad.

Until 1983, Japanese firms sold more cars than any other manufacturers in Malaysia before the government launched Proton as its first National Car Project. It would eventually dominate the local market before Perodua grew its market share from 4.5% in 1994 to a 39.8% majority last year.

Perodua v Proton - new vehicles sales in Malaysia 2014-2019

Sources: Focus 2 Move (1), (2), (3), (4), Paultan (1), (2), Statista

Both companies have reassessed their outlooks in the wake of the pandemic. Perodua aimed to sell 240,000 vehicles this year, but it expects to fall short by 15-17%. “We had made an initial forecast and yes, there has been a slowdown in sales. But for now, our strategy for the remainder of 2020 is to stay with what we had targeted to achieve before the movement control order,” said Perodua president and chief executive Datuk Zainal Abidin Ahmad.

Meanwhile, Proton reported better sales figures in the first quarter—despite the MCOs being in effect—than in the same period last year. Once out of lockdown, it incentivised customers with 0% financing offers, although its figures for May were lower than last year.

“It will take a few more months to get an accurate reading of market conditions, but we are quite confident from this point onwards,” forecast Proton Chief Executive Officer Dr Li Chunrong. “We will see steady growth for the rest of the year,” he added.

The battle has already resumed but if Proton was hoping that COVID-19 forcing a market “reset” might help them close the gap on Perodua, that does not seem to have happened. Perodua has continued to extend its lead over Proton, claiming a 42% market share in the first two quarters of 2020.

Three generations of Proton Saga cars. Photo: Aero7MY shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

In 2017, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group acquired a 49.9% stake in Proton. While it gave the manufacturer much-needed financial and technological lifelines, it could suffer if consumers turn away from brands associated with China in the wake of COVID-19.

By comparison, Perodua’s shareholders include Japan’s Daihatsu and it also has links with Toyota, for whom it began producing cars in 2004. As Japan prepares to move some of its car production out of China, Perodua could stand to gain if it can assemble still more vehicles for the Japanese firm.

Malaysia’s auto industry was on strong footing before COVID-19

In many places, the motor industry was struggling before the pandemic arrived due to the ongoing China-US trade war and concerns about the environment. However, Malaysia was better placed than some. A 2019 report noted the industry was performing well, contributing 4.2% of the country’s gross domestic product with exports at record levels.

Furthermore, car makers were hitting targets for sales of energy-efficient cars and the public was becoming comfortable with the need to buy efficient and safe vehicles. In this way, it mitigated against some of the environmental concerns that have hampered other manufacturers and industries in other countries.

However, it is still reeling from the impacts of COVID-19. Malaysia saw a sharp rise in unemployment, peaking at 5.3% in May, and a steady drop in consumer spending. There is a clear correlation between unemployment rates and sales of cars, so if people remain out of work, sales will only pick up slowly.

“Demand for new vehicles remains sluggish due to economic uncertainty and weak consumer confidence,” said Malaysian Automotive Association (MAA) president Datuk Aishah Ahmed.

There are, however, encouraging signs from elsewhere. In China, car sales have already recovered to pre-COVID levels. One factor could be that social distancing is encouraging more people to buy their own cars instead of sharing rides. Dealers are allowing consumers more flexible payment options than before—as they are also doing in Malaysia—after Beijing pushed local governments to stimulate sales.

While wariness of a second wave of infections persists, unemployment figures have dropped following the lifting of lockdown restrictions. If that trend continues, and the government continues to push car sales to get the economy moving, car manufacturers’ optimism may be rewarded. Malaysia’s motor industry stands a chance of making as full a recovery as is possible from the pandemic.

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