Thursday, July 29, 2010

Iskandar shows more promise

WHEN the two Prime Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia announced recently, and rather unexpectedly, a resolution to the long-standing issue of Malaysian railway land, there was a quiet sense of relief on both sides. But for none more so than among the backers of Iskandar Malaysia, an ambitious concept mooted in 2006 by the Malaysian government with the vision of transforming greenfield clusters in Johor into a sustainable and prosperous metropolis by 2025.

Singapore's initial response to the mega development plan was lukewarm. Singapore businesses viewed warily the rosy forecast of lucrative investment opportunities in waterfront projects and building and operating educational institutions and theme parks. The onslaught of the global financial crisis in 2008 did not help matters and Iskandar developments appeared to be moving slowly.

However, to the credit of the project's planners and managers, and the commitment of the Malaysian government, hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk into developing the necessary infrastructure. Roads and highways were built, rivers cleaned up, and water and energy services to the area upgraded. In short, Malaysia's planners spared no effort and now the development is ripe for takeoff.

Private investments have been picking up. The catalytic driver of investments for the area, Iskandar Investments, signed on some major projects and achieved its own target for joint ventures. Indeed, Iskandar Malaysia is reported to have gone beyond its target of achieving US$13.2 billion in investments by 2010. However, there can be no denying that Singapore investors have been by and large in 'wait and see' mode.

Several business delegations have gone across from Singapore over the past two years to take a look at the region and see developments for themselves. But except for a few small investors, there was no notable commitment from a Singapore party - until recently, when the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) announced one of its biggest forays overseas, a $128 million investment to set up a 30-acre campus in an area within Iskandar's EduCity. The new facility will be about five times bigger than its Singapore campus.

Now that political reassurances have been made, and basic infrastructure is in place, will potential investors from Singapore take the plunge? Already Temasek Holdings is eyeing some 200 hectares of land in the development zone for a medical and wellness centre. This must be the clearest signal that the Malaysian project has got that it is ready to fly.

But while government assurances and commitments are necessary, nothing can replace the hard-nosed approach of business people, who base their decisions purely on investment returns. How much, and how quickly, private investment flows into Iskandar Malaysia will be the real test. But it must be said that the prospects now look better than at any time since the project's launch.

Source: Business Times, 29 Jul 2010

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