Johor goes from ulu to ooh la la

Well-run film studio complex in Iskandar showcases the state's vast potential


A month ago, a group of us journalists were put into a van and taken to a new television and film studio complex in Johor.

I was grumpy. My throat was scratchy. I felt there were better things I could be doing on a Saturday morning than be stuck in traffic on the Tuas Second Link on a school holiday weekend. Sure enough, it took over two hours to cross the checkpoint.

But things looked up when we arrived. The Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios is impressive. It's a vast, high-tech centre, larger than similar facilities in Singapore and Batam combined.

The people in charge were clearly proud of what they had achieved. A multimillion-dollar television show for United States streaming services provider Netflix is already in production there. The series about 13th-century explorer Marco Polo will debut next year.

Lunch for us reporters was pasta bolognese in a takeout box from the gleaming commissary (or canteen to you and me). It's not exactly what the stars eat, but it was good.

The tour of the premises went as planned and the people in charge of the project were confident and well-organised. These outcomes are taken for granted in this country, but like a lot of Singaporeans, I reflexively and perhaps unfairly lower my standards when I cross the border.

I, and I suspect a lot more Singaporeans, will not hold on to these attitudes for very long.

Until that visit, the Iskandar economic zone was just words on paper to me. To my mind, this is where Legoland Malaysia Resort sits, along with a sprawl of condos targeted at Singaporeans.

Conceived in the mid-2000s, the Iskandar region aims to be the yin to Singapore's yang, a zone where land and skilled labour are available for companies to do things that cannot be done on this crowded island.

That trip opened my eyes to the speed of change and how serious the Malaysians were about hitting the ground running. Plus, the executives we met exhibited two qualities in short supply here: flexibility and graciousness. Call me naive, but it felt as if they cared about the press getting what we needed from them, rather than the other way around, which is the more common occurrence at home.

The studio's top bosses hung around the lobby to chat and answer final questions as we Singaporeans waited for the vans to take us home. I don't remember seeing mingling like that happen in my own country.

Something else happened recently that brought attention back to how rapidly things are moving in Johor.

Forest City could be the name of a small English football club. But it belongs to an artificial island nearly 2,000ha in size - three times the size of Ang Mo Kio - which we are told will rise up from the sea, with a finger of land poking cheekily under the Second Link.

And until two weeks ago, most of us had not heard of it. But in a confusing series of reports from various agencies, it seems that work has already started and the first 20ha phase of reclamation may be completed by the year's end.

Along with a Johor government company, Forest City is being developed by Chinese property giant Country Garden. It makes me wonder if construction firms and their vast land reclamation projects should have names that make them sound like Hobbit villages or organic-food restaurants. They are not fooling anyone.

Because reclamation works over 50ha have to be vetted for environmental impact, Forest City could be composed of a patchwork of islets each under 50ha in size, says the Edge Review magazine.

If true, this exploitation of a loophole is morally awful, but it's also pretty amazing anyone would think of doing that. It reminds me of how Pizza Hut in China once had an all-you-can-carry-in-one-salad-bowl offer. Students seized the chance to build veggie-and-fruit towers tall enough to feed a village. Again, not a nice thing to do. But you have to respect the out-of-the-box thinking, as well as the audacity to see it through.

Babies born today will be having babies of their own by the time Forest City is fully developed. Those future parents will be of the right age to buy homes there, or visit its planned attractions.

The Singapore Government has informed its counterparts across the Causeway of its concerns about how the development might affect national boundaries and the natural surroundings and it seems construction has been halted for now.

The situation is delicate. Singapore has invested billions in Iskandar and, like Malaysia, sees the area's success as a win-win for both nations. Singapore's own reclamation projects at Tuas View Extension and Pulau Tekong raised protests over environmental degradation from its neighbour in 2002. An agreement was signed in 2005 settling the dispute.

The Forest City case is likely to drag on for some time and in the meantime, other projects on the Johor mainland will spring up - a chemical plant here, a university there. Today, there is a new film and television studio, built on a scale that could never be achieved here, a few minutes by car across the Second Link (if you avoid peak congestion).

In its vast sound stages, and in the poise and determination of its management, and in the rolling greenfields of land, I caught a glimpse the future. My future, actually.

As Singapore's population gets older, as its costs go up while its land banks go down, it is very likely that my destiny, and the destinies of many of us, lies tied up somewhere up north.

Background story

Artificial islands

Forest City could be the name of a small English football club. But it belongs to an artificial island nearly 2,000ha in size - three times the size of Ang Mo Kio - which we are told will rise up from the sea, with a finger of land poking cheekily under the Second Link. And until two weeks ago, most of us had not heard of it. But... it seems that work has already started and the first 20ha phase of reclamation may be completed by the year's end.