Mahathir responds to Johor Sultan in land sale feud

A model of the Forest City property development. The project, helmed by a Chinese mega-developer and a company controlled by the Johor ruler, is at the heart of a feud over the sale of land to companies from China.
A model of the Forest City property development. The project, helmed by a Chinese mega-developer and a company controlled by the Johor ruler, is at the heart of a feud over the sale of land to companies from China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
A model of the Forest City property development. The project, helmed by a Chinese mega-developer and a company controlled by the Johor ruler, is at the heart of a feud over the sale of land to companies from China.
Sultan Ibrahim of Johor
A model of the Forest City property development. The project, helmed by a Chinese mega-developer and a company controlled by the Johor ruler, is at the heart of a feud over the sale of land to companies from China.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Ex-PM insists such sales to Chinese firms are detrimental, unlike manufacturing deals

Malaysia's former prime minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, has responded to criticisms by the Sultan of Johor over the sale of land to Chinese companies in the southern state, insisting that such deals are detrimental to the country, unlike foreign investments in the manufacturing sector.

The escalating feud between Dr Mahathir and Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar has centred on the US$42 billion (S$60 billion) Forest City development, which will see four islands reclaimed on the Malaysian side of the Johor Strait and turned into a giant township.

The project is helmed by the Hong Kong-listed Chinese mega-developer Country Garden and a company controlled by the Johor ruler.

In a letter to The Star newspaper yesterday, Dr Mahathir, widely credited with modernising Malaysia and boosting its manufacturing sector during his 22 years in power, wrote: "Yes, I promoted foreign direct investment (FDI). But it was not about buying land in Malaysia, developing it and selling it to foreigners who will stay here. FDI is about investment in the manufacturing industry.

"Malaysian companies will construct the buildings and Malaysians will work in the industries. They will acquire skills and start their own manufacturing business."

He added that Malaysians are capable of undertaking the land development projects being given to Chinese companies, which he said then sell most of the properties to their countrymen.

NOT SACRIFICING AN INCH OF LAND

(Dr Mahathir) is giving the impression that Johor is surrendering land to the Chinese and that we are giving up our sovereignty, comparing even how we gave up Singapore to the British. I would like to ask Dr Mahathir if these foreign buyers can just take their apartments back home or carry off an inch of the reclaimed land.

SULTAN IBRAHIM OF JOHOR

MORE THAN A MILLION FOREIGNERS

There will be in all more than a million foreigners living in JB Forest City and the 60 other developments. These new places will not become a foreign country but they will have an inordinate percentage of foreign people. If they stay long enough, they will be entitled to become citizens of Malaysia.

DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD

"When foreigners buy land, there is not even an inflow of capital. Much of the money will be borrowed locally (in China). And they can do their business with their own banks. Whatever foreign companies earn will be expatriated, and will result in outflow of capital," he wrote.

Dr Mahathir, who now leads a Malaysian opposition party, also said Chinese deals in Malaysia should be transparent. He called for the publication of "all documents about the investments, the number of workers, their home countries, the buyers, the banks which finance and all expatriation of funds".

The former premier, who remains influential despite stepping down in 2003, is campaigning to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak and has repeatedly criticised the Malaysian government's huge push for Chinese companies to enter various sectors of Malaysia's economy, including land and sea transport, energy and property.

In his letter to The Star, Dr Mahathir said his assertion that Johor will be flooded with Chinese nationals was based on previous news reports.

"There will be in all more than a million foreigners living in JB Forest City and the 60 other developments. These new places will not become a foreign country but they will have an inordinate percentage of foreign people. If they stay long enough, they will be entitled to become citizens of Malaysia," he said.

A top Forest City official has said that the development could house 700,000 people, when fully completed in 20 to 30 years' time.

Dr Mahathir's letter was a response to The Star's interview with Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, published in the English daily on Monday.

The Johor ruler had said he was "deeply offended and hurt" by the attacks against mainland Chinese investments in the state, saying that the attacks, if left unchecked, would drive away investors.

Sultan Ibrahim had said: "(Dr Mahathir) is giving the impression that Johor is surrendering land to the Chinese and that we are giving up our sovereignty, comparing even how we gave up Singapore to the British."

The Sultan also said: "I would like to ask Dr Mahathir if these foreign buyers can just take their apartments back home or carry off an inch of the reclaimed land."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Mahathir responds to Johor Sultan in land sale feud'. Print Edition | Subscribe