Malaysia as a Car Culture

Malaysia is a car culture.

Not a ‘driving’ culture, one where the act of movement itself is a sacred rite, but one where the motor industry and cars themselves have shaped the landscape and the place that in turn has shaped the society and the people.


Driving is more akin to breathing.

This is no more a driving culture than humanity is an ‘oxygen culture’


We are heading up country in a borrowed Honda, my partner and I, departing from her hometown of Rawang, a large, sprawling settlement in the state of Selangor, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Once a tin-pot tin mining town, whose output, like much of Selangor’s, was dwarfed by the larger lodes of ore excavated in neighbouring Perak, Rawang became more populous with successive waves of migration – first for the mines, then the plantations; first rubber, then palm oi.. More recently, as Malaysia has moved up the value chain (along the way, ceding it’s position as the world’s biggest rubber producer in return for birthing the world’s most fecund condom manufacturer) Rawang has diversified, with a large cement plant and several auto part makers, as well as a healthy trade in commuters, who brave the sluggish, stolid, slog of 23 kilometres, south to Kuala Lumpur. For those who know London, it’s a place is faintly reminiscent of a chaotic, post-colonial Croydon.


The Honda was one of those nondescript mid-sized saloons that are almost impossible to date now. Neither old nor new, it was built some time in the late noughties, destined to be driven some time soon into quiet obsolescence with little to mark it’s passing. For now though, it was comfortable in it’s late-middle age – stately, unhurried and reliable. We had stopped in the centre of town to find a cable to connect the car’s ‘Aux’ input – a headphone-jack-sized hole – to the C-type output on my phone which dated the car’s design to a time when people had already begun to carry their music with them, but before the expectation that they could beam it at will to any willing object nearby, a last bastion of the wired in this second age of wireless. The first arbitrary phone shop we found was able to oblige, and we were underway; the cable acting as a tether across time and space, documenting the quiet progress consumer electronics had made in the first decade of my fully-adult life. 


That this cable would be so easy to find on the nearest street corner begins to illustrate the car’s pervasive presence in Malaysia. The peninsula itself is as well endowed as it’s prophylactics makers, ringed with scruffy-beautiful sand beaches and spined by a range of jungle-covered mountains, their highlands littered with the kind of idiosnycratic mock-tudor bungalows that a certain type of adventurous Briton wistfully littered across the world during the early 20th Century during occasionally-indulged moments of homesic whimsy, peppering half the globe with a connect-the-dots simulacrum of Surrey, stretching from Sri Lanka to Sarawak. Century-old shophouses, skyscrapers, and one of the worlds most eclectic cuisines are just some of the other rewards you get here. Just don’t expect to get here without driving.


The first car factory in the Straits was in fact not in what was to become Malaysia, but on the island of Singapore; a confident Art-Deco building in Bukit Timah built in 1941 that was shortly to become the site of the British surrender of Singapore in 1942 to the Japanese. Car production in Malaysia itself was really established post-independence in 1967 when the government approved construction of 6 factories – 3 in Shah Alam, some 40kms south of Rawang, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang. Initially assembling foreign cars, by the 1980s, the expertise and skills that these had acquired for the country helped launch the ‘National Car Project’, leading to the founding of Proton in 1983 and the launch of the bestselling Proton Saga by 1985. Annual sales of less than 100,000 units in 1985 had almost tripled by 1995 and were close to 700,000 by 2015.


But sales figures only tell half the story.

The intimate relationship was not just the car as a marker of progress, as is the case in many rapidly growing countries, but with the car industry as a symbol of national pride. By 2002, Malaysia had become only the 11th country in the world to be able to design, engineer and build a car from a blank page and the only one in the region. By 1999, Malaysia was hosting a Grand Prix and Petronas, Perdua and Proton were all part of a heady, high-octane cocktail fuelling modern Malaysian identity.


Since that early noughties high water mark for both Malaysia and the automotive industry worldwide – even US car sales peaked in 2000 – the wheel has turned. By the end of those intervening decades, the effect of having tied national pride so closely to the automotive has left the country lacking. This combination car-centric policy-making and the endemic underinvestment in other forms of locomotion that it precludes, spiced with a particularly piquant variety of local corruption has left Malaysia lacking. Few if any rail lines were opened between the 1930s and 1995’s opening of the first commuter line serving Kuala Lumpur – incidentally beginning as our journey did, in Rawang. In those intervening years, coinciding with Malaysia’s Asian Tiger’s leap, speculative property building followed road construction, slashing six-lane asphalt through the jungle, arteries bulbous with tumours of exurban growth that were heavy on driveways but light on pavements. 


This fundamentally affects the Malaysian way of being and doing. When you ‘go’ somewhere, there is really only one way to ‘go’. Even in central KL, the public transport system is too sporadic, too syncopated to be truly helpful, and in truth, with so many organs of state and offices of commerce, transplanted to new as well as heavily redeveloped and car-centric townships ringing the city proper; Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya; it’s utility is moot. In this respect, KL feels like the cousin of LA, caught in a specific glorious moment, sometime in the late 20th century, when car was raja.

From ‘driving to ‘being’

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport” Gustavo Petro

The car as it currently stands is a beautiful anachronism.

As a mystic sign of (primarily male) potency and a totem of freedom it’s glory days were, at least in the ‘West’, sometime between the 1950s and the 1970s. The democratisation of ownership that came with the post war golden age of consumption deified the automobile as a symbol of individualisation, autonomy and possibility. In the US particularly, its fetishisation was tied up intimately with early sexual experience as recognised by Ernst Dichter; a first space in which agency could be expressed, where you could get away from the parental gaze in the exurban sprawl of the 50s consumer boom.

The car meant escape, freedom, possibility and both product evolution and the marketing myth reflected this. Shots of convertibles, top-down, endless stretches of empty tarmac ahead, Headlines proselytising power, speed, muscular potential. Increasingly powerful engines, aggressive styling, ridiculous names (Jensen Interceptor!?!) all catalysed the myth.

As the late 20th Century saw a move from a ‘bactrian’ to ‘dromedary’ graph of global affluence, carmakers sold this same legend to places as diverse as Dubai to Davao; the myth of driving.

However we are at an inflection point. The open road is a myth. The UN reported in 2014 that the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, a significant proportion of which lives in densely populated ‘megacities’. If you have ever got in a Taxi in Shanghai or Sao Paulo, you will understand what this means for the this fallacy of driving freedom. The RAC estimates cars in the UK are, on average parked and unused 96.5% of the time. Parking wastes valuable urban spaces and forces longer commutes and in the most expensive cities is often extortionate. Owning a car is increasingly a burden rather than a freedom. And there are signals of this in the growth of car-sharing schemes, the role of products such as UBER’s in freeing up cities (let us park the flurry of criticism which they are currently under… ) At the same time, self driving technology seeks to free us up from the burden of sitting in charge of a vehicle in traffic, turning time that would otherwise be wasted crawling along behind the wheel into productive hours. The very real threat of self-driving is that it will catalyse the move away from ownership altogether in the traditional automotive sector…. The weak signals are already there…

So it’s all pretty grim then for car-makers? Not necessarily. Based on my recent observations, despite ‘driving’ becoming more and more of a chore, there is still some magic left in the car yet. But to harness it, and set-up their brands for future success as the the automobile is dragged and disrupted kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, auto-makers will need to reframe what the category really is. Historically it was about ‘driving’ but in reality now, it is about ‘being’. People still value the time, space and privacy of being in their own car, even in a traffic jam, so long as you can make that experience a rewarding one. The category, even though it hasn’t realised it yet itself is in the business of selling ‘time well spent’.

The implications of this are huge. Think hero features such as soundproofing, intelligent cruise control, audio system and In-car entertainment and connectivity. Designer interiors and hero shots of upholstery rather than exterior angles. And think about how fundamentally differently you you talk about that ‘being’ experience. Whether by accident or design, Lexus hinted at it as early as 2002 ( ) and cult cars such as the Nissan Cube and others are implictly about that experience.

Of course there will still be moments that are about ‘driving’ but the reality is they are losing relevance as they decrease, and will lose resonance when it comes to purchase. If car-makers want to fight against a world of mass private-public transport and post-ownership automobiles, they need to sell a unique experience that comes with ownership. And that experience is about ‘being’ not ‘driving’