My 1978 — Looking east and a rising star!


NBT’s best-selling Toyota Corolla model of 1978, all geared up with company logo.

I HAVE always believed that the demographic cohort known as the ‘Baby Boomers’ (those born between 1946 and 1964) were the fortunate sons and daughters – the lucky ones who came right after the war years of the ‘Silent Generation’ and, in turn, would become parents of the generations to come – the Gen X and the Millennials!

I was a Baby Boomer: born in 1950, had gone to school in the 1960s, started working by the mid-1970s, and was trying to make a success of my career in the 1980s and 1990s. By the turn of the century, I’d have prepared to retire in comfort – and a good retirement by age 55, sometime in the early 2000s.

In 1978, at age 28, I had only been a year into my new job as branch manager of a motor vehicle company – the North Borneo Trading Company Ltd – and had just opened up a brand new showroom atop a hill at Jalan Pending in Kuching.

The company, known as NBT at the time, was part of the global conglomerate known as Inchcape Berhad, a public-listed company that had in its stable other companies like Borneo Company, Borneo Motors, Champion Motors, Borneo Agri-Chemicals and Austral, as well as swathes of landed properties and other diverse interests throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

It also had a share in the newly-opened Holiday Inn Hotel in Kuching and joint-ventures with the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC).

I had first joined Borneo Company in 1970, and was posted to its branches in Sibu, Miri and Kuala Belait before landing back in Kuching when it had decided to establish and expand interests in the motor trade as hitherto its focus had mainly been on fast-moving consumer products.

I was selected for its foray into the motor trade, and at that point in time, it was thought to be a rather risky venture as the make of its product was Japanese and the brand was Toyota.

The team of NBT Toyota ‘Best-Seller Winners of 1978’: (from left) the columnist, Kuan Shin Choi, Hiroyuki Yamada and Hung Sing Kai seen here at the Shah Alam assembly plant.

In the 1960s, saloon cars were rare even in the state capital of Kuching, as the number of bicycles and buses took care of most people’s transportation needs, besides which the business centre of the town was small and compact and virtually, most transactions could be conducted on foot – or taxi if, need be.

The best-selling car brands had mostly British or European names on their bonnets – Vauxhall, Ford, Volkswagen, Morris-Minor, Renault, Opel and even Peugeot.

In 1978, we sold one of the first Japanese models, a Toyota Corolla, and in the trade, we called it a KE30. It had a 1200cc engine, and for a four-door saloon version, which was completely-knocked-down (CKD), it was assembled at our fellow company in Shah Alam, costing RM16,000.

The average monthly instalment payment was less than RM300 for a three- or five-year loan, at a lowly nine per cent interest. The car was air-conditioned and a dream to drive; its comfort level matched, or even surpassed, some of the European marques.

When we started the business, we were uncertain whether we could compete head-on with the long entrenched, well-accepted and popular brands, led by the UK and European makers. After all, we only had a slight price advantage and our models were seen or thought to be ‘of a yet questionable quality’ and the technological know-how was deemed to be untested.

Admittedly too, the first few early models of most Japanese cars including Toyota, Nissan (Datsun), Mazda and Honda, were not very well-designed, and actually looked rather ‘ugly’.

Aesthetics were not their forte, till the late 1990s.

It was not until the 1980 model of the boxy E-70, fourth generation Toyota Corolla that we had started to sell in sizeable numbers, taking us to the No 1 top-seller position not just in Kuching, but throughout Malaysia. It also broke through the record books by being the one-millionth Corolla built in February 1983!

The head office team of NBT Toyota, in this photo taken in in 1978: (from left) H Tokui, Ng Peng Hiew Sarin Motors, Fred Yeo CCM, the columnist, Doris Chin, Hiroyuki Yamada, and Nelly Tan-Shim.

When we first started selling Toyota cars, our monthly sales figure was wavering between one and three units for the first few months; by the end of the first year, we were hitting a regular seven or eight units per month. And by the end of Year 3, we (Kuching) had become the top-selling branch for Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, selling close to 100 units per month!

The competition proved to be good for everyone – all the Japanese brands became popular with consumers. Toyota led the field by a wide margin, but Datsun (Nissan), Mazda and Honda were also selling well.

Slowly, the non-Japanese brands faded into the background although demand for the premium brands – BMW, Audi, Mercedes Benz, Lexus and VW – had started a slow, but steady, growth since the 1990s due to parallel imports from the ‘grey market’, etc, as well as a fast-growing upper middle class.

Between 1978 and 1988, we had a full decade of growth and change and for a brief moment in Malaysia, we were seen as a bright shining star in the firmament of world socio-economic growth, vitality and human endeavour.

The promise of a First World Nation was, indeed, great.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed, upon taking over as Prime Minister from Tun Hussein Onn in 1981, had wanted to revitalise Malaysia, and one of the early battle-cries and economic rallying calls were for businesses and everyone involved to ‘Look Eastwards’ – especially towards Japan.

Dr Mahathir had considered that the secret of Japanese success lay in its labour ethics, morale and management capability.

The Inchcape management staff of 1978: (from left) Shookry Gani, Gay Shookry, the columnist, Brian Crane, Yong Crane, and Song Swee Guan, with a guest – Edric Ong.

As recently as December 2022, the 97-year old former PM (for two terms) who had overseen over 40 years of the now-disused and outmoded ‘Look East Policy’ had this to say: “It was not an easy task.

“Like any other former colonies of European nations, Malaysians tend to be more accustomed to treating the Western culture as superior. New global developments, including the meteoric rise of China as well as the United States’ hostile reaction to this, had impacted many of Malaysia’s foreign policies and international relations.”

Was that all? Looking back over the past 45 years, one can only imagine what lies ahead.

During this period of our history, we have seen the rise of China as a formidable world power with its 1.4 billion people empowered, enriched and in a position to take on the world’s hitherto most powerful nation, the United States, in everything from technological advances to the latest Artificial Intelligence (AI), as well as having its influence being felt directly in every continent.

In 1978, for what I can easily get today on my Huawei Smartphone, I had at that time, needed all the separate equipment, appliances and devices as follows to either read, watch, listen or communicate and entertain: a telephone, a watch-alarm clock, blood pressure-glucose reader, a tape-recorder, a record-player, a camera, a microphone, earphones, a video-camera, a hardcopy book, a DVD/CD/USB stick, a diary, a hardcopy magazine/newspaper, a photo album, Bible or Quran or other Holy Books, Yellow Pages, a directory, a compass, a calculator, a thermometer, a map, a printer, a mirror, a typewriter, a television set, ad infinitum.

To the publisher, editors and all staff of The Borneo Post, Happy 45th Anniversary!

What a ride it has been for you all! Here’s wishing you the very best for 45 more and even more.

Congratulations for staying the course!