Economic Affairs

Iskandar's success still up in the air

Johor region's slow population growth and reliance on property development are concerns

The development region of Iskandar Malaysia in Johor has captured Singaporeans' imagination in the past decade with the prospect of spacious and affordable homes, and for industrialists, the possibility of lower-cost expansion.

Iskandar has often been described as the Shenzhen to Singapore's Hong Kong. The authorities in Iskandar have also said they were studying the Shenzhen-Hong Kong relationship.

The late Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, stirred controversy when he said in a 2007 interview that Iskandar would put pressure on Singapore, just as Shenzhen rivalled Hong Kong in business.

But emulating Shenzhen has not been easy for Iskandar. Several high-profile projects have been either slow to start or put on ice. While industrial parks such as the Southern Industrial and Logistics Cluster and the Nusajaya Tech Park have been completed and companies have begun operations there, the pace has been slow.

Since 2013, there has been concern that an oversupply of homes is putting downward pressure on property prices.

Are such worries warranted? What is the outlook for Iskandar?

CHINA BOOM

Iskandar's residential property growth has drawn awe and scepticism in equal measure.

The awe is for the sheer scale of projects. Chinese property developer Country Garden made the news for its audacity in reclaiming large swathes of land from the sea to build an entire township. Its sales last year hit 16,000 high-rise apartments in its Forest City project. Since March 2015, it has reclaimed 2.24 sq km of lands and plans to keep going until it reaches 20 sq km.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Its other project in Danga Bay was launched in 2013 and has 9,400 units. That may seem modest compared with Forest City but is still on a much larger scale than projects in Singapore if one considers that developers here sold about 8,300 private residential units for the whole of last year.

Large investments have flowed in from other Chinese property developers. Between 2014 and last year, Chinese investors put in more than US$2.1 billion (S$2.9 billion) in Malaysian real estate, compared with US$985 million by Singaporean companies, according to Real Capital Analytics data based on completed transactions of US$10 million and above. Ironically, the large investments have led to concerns of a large oversupply of units, with prices and transactions falling since 2013. Market watchers have estimated that property prices for high-end condominiums in the region have fallen between 5 per cent and 10 per cent since 2013.

Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda) chief executive Ismail Ibrahim says that for an estimated population of three million by 2025, Iskandar still needs about 500,000 homes.

There are now about 700,000 homes, he said, adding that Chinese developers are building another 20,000 to 25,000.

If the population grows as projected, the number of homes being built is no cause for alarm.

SINGAPOREAN BUYERS

Some 30 per cent of buyers of Country Garden's 9,400-unit Danga Bay project are Singaporeans - and will be collecting their keys in a couple of months. Many of them plan to use their Johor property as weekend homes and are unperturbed by reports of falling prices.

Furthermore, Singaporeans residing in Iskandar are not just banking on projected long-term capital gains but also embracing the opportunity for a different lifestyle.

Mr Vivek Parasher, a 51-year-old business development director, has a condominium in Bukit Batok with ample living space for his wife and mother. His children study overseas.

But he is itching to move into his landed property in Iskandar Malaysia, notwithstanding the estimated two-hour commute daily between home and his workplace.

"It is so tranquil, there's no sound of traffic. My mother and wife are so happy there," he said.

Likewise, Mr Marc Naidu, a 47-year-old bachelor, had bought his landed property in Iskandar as an investment, intending to move there only after a couple of years. Mr Naidu, who owns a landed property in East Coast, decided to rent out the property in Singapore due to its high rental yield. He moved to Johor last October, but has no plans to hurry back. He said he is having the time of his life, and also "the life of my time".

Most agents said that a large majority of Singaporeans buying residential property in Iskandar are those buying a second home and not trading their home in Singapore for another in Malaysia.

That is also the case in Hong Kong, where a 2013 study found that about 8 per cent of Hong Kong households, which is roughly 200,000, had a second home in neighbouring Guangdong province, which includes Shenzhen.

Many are optimistic about Iskandar's long-term prospects.

Datuk Ibrahim said Iskandar exceeded its investment targets last year. It received RM32.15 billion (S$10.4 billion) in investment commitment, surpassing its annual target of RM25 billion.

Singapore business federations also report that many Singaporean businesses looking to expand into the region have bought commercial property in Iskandar.

But even as many ride the Iskandar wave, there are concerns about Iskandar's economic model.

Singaporean real estate firm ZACD Group recently opened an office in Johor to support Singaporean and Malaysian industrialists setting up factories there. Its head of research and consultancy, Mr Nicholas Mak, said there was interest from Singaporean companies, but in terms of manufacturing investments, Iskandar is a "very, very long way" from Shenzhen.

Where Singapore-Iskandar differs from Hong Kong-Shenzhen, said Mr Mak, is that when Hong Kong's manufacturing sector hollowed out, it was natural for firms to move to the mainland, but Singapore manufacturers can make use of industrial land in the island's west and north, or even opt to move to Batam.

"More so than Shenzhen, I wonder if Iskandar will go the way of Batam. It was once touted as the next big thing as land and labour costs were so low. But how often do you hear of manufacturers moving there now?" said Mr Mak.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL

What is likely to be the game changer will be the improved transportation links in the form of a proposed high-speed rail between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that passes through Iskandar, as well as the Rapid Transit System that connects Woodlands to Johor Baru.

When these transport links are up and running, property experts believe that more Singaporeans will buy homes across the Causeway. Mr Eugene Lim, ERA's key executive officer, said that while enquiries about homes in Iskandar remain lukewarm, they have risen by about 10 per cent to 20 per cent since 2015.

He estimated that the number of Singapore residents who are tempted to move to JB will be a "few hundred" at most. Most people still have work commitments and will prefer to live in Singapore.

Mr Ryan Khoo, ERA's regional director for international projects (Malaysia), is more optimistic. He estimates that there are "tens of thousands" of retirees who may consider living in Iskandar while renting out their flats here to capitalise on the strength of the Singapore dollar against the ringgit.

But can Iskandar become another Shenzhen?

In Shenzhen's case, its property market was enlivened by the growth of industry, driven by mainland Chinese domestic demand. Shenzhen started off as a low-end manufacturing location for Hong Kong companies. On this basis, its population grew by about 50 times from 30,000 in 1979 to about two million in the 1990s. It has since augmented its manufacturing base to become a tech hub through the growth of home-grown entrepreneurial firms such as tech giant Tencent and smartphone maker Huawei.

The nascent Iskandar is still struggling to grow its population. It has a population of 1.8 million now, up from 1.45 million in 2005.

Unlike Shenzhen, the hubbub of activity in Iskandar seems disproportionately concentrated on property development, ironically not a priority sector.

Irda has said that 20 per cent of total cumulative investments in the region as of December last year was in residential properties, making up roughly RM44.4 billion, while mixed developments took up 26 per cent of investments at RM57.7 billion.

Meanwhile, about RM57.4 billion has gone into manufacturing, which makes up 25 per cent of total investment.

For now, the Shenzhen economic model of growth through manufacturing investments appears out of reach for Iskandar.

No doubt manufacturing investments are not the only way to generate growth. Iskandar may well prosper through other economic development strategies.

But prioritising property development and hoping that that alone will draw a large-enough population catchment is a strategy that may not assure success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Iskandar's success still up in the air'. Print Edition | Subscribe