KL's ambitious Vision Valley mega project

Plan to draw investors with new economic zone in Negeri Sembilan

From the hilltop perch of the estate manager's bungalow, a sprawling carpet of lush green oil palm trees stretches as far as the eye can see.

 The only signs of economic activity are the smoke from a palm oil refinery below and the dust from lorries carrying gravel and crushed stone at a quarry at the far ends of this plantation in the central Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan.

 But this picture is set to change.

 Slowly emerging on the planning boards of architects behind Malaysia's most ambitious and closely guarded economic push is an integrated economic development covering more than 153,000ha, or roughly twice the size of Singapore.

 Called the Malaysia Vision Valley, Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration is hoping that the existing and planned infrastructure will turn the area into a magnet for domestic and international investments with priority for high-technology industries, private universities and research labs, and tourism ventures.

 The numbers mentioned by government officials and private sector executives involved in the planning are staggering; Kuala Lumpur is hoping to draw more than RM400 billion (S$132 billion) in investments by 2045 into the economic region. That is more than double Malaysia's other major economic zone Iskandar has so far attracted, despite being at Singapore's doorstep.

 Malaysia Vision Valley, by far the most ambitious economic initiative of any Malaysian administration, was originally presented to the government by plantation conglomerate Sime Darby, the largest landowner in the area, some time in 2009. However, a weak global economy, tepid foreign investor interest in Malaysia and budget constraints forced the government to shelve it.

  • $132b Amount of investment Kuala Lumpur hopes to attract by 2045 into the economic region.

 Over the past six months, though, the government's view has changed.

 Senior government officials and private-sector executives who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Datuk Seri Najib is now staking a huge bet on the project to reverse his government's flagging popularity ahead of elections, particularly among the country's urban population where anti-government sentiment runs deep.

 "Of course there is a political agenda to this and it is going to be part of the plan to create a feel-good sentiment before the elections," says a senior government public-relations strategist, who has attended several private briefings on the project. He notes that the launch of the Malaysia Vision Valley masterplan will happen some time next April in the run-up to the general election expected in the second half of next year.

 But it is this political dimension that has private economists and the business community worried.

 "Malaysia gets top marks when it comes to master planning," says a chief executive of an international property consultancy based in Kuala Lumpur. "The problem is when politicians get involved and everything gets overblown because they want to force the pace."

 Malaysia emerged from the 1998 regional economic crisis by pushing ahead with a massive building binge, throwing billions of ringgit into infrastructure development, a new administrative capital called Putrajaya, airports, ports and highways. Also thrown into the mix were dedicated economic zones meant to draw much-needed foreign investments.

 But many of the mega projects foundered. These included former premier Mahathir Mohamad's Multimedia Super Corridor that was designed to attract world-class technology companies and groom a domestic information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

 Proponents of Malaysia Vision Valley say the venture will not adopt the "build and they will come" approach that the Malaysian government adopted for Iskandar and Dr Mahathir's ICT corridor venture.

 "The approach this time will be to let things develop more organically and leverage on what is already existing," says a senior town planner who has attended several close-door briefings on the project.

 It helps that the project is close to Kuala Lumpur's international airport and the country's major ports and has good transport links. In the coming years, it will also have a station for the proposed high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, according to several government officials and private-sector executives.

Proponents say the development will be led by one main developer, Sime Darby, which also ranks as one of the country's top property developers. This contrasts with Iskandar, which attracted numerous real-estate companies that flooded the market with dozens of mixed projects, causing an oversupply.

 Despite Malaysia Vision Valley's size, only 37 per cent, or about 57,000ha, has been slated for development. And, of that amount, Sime Darby owns about half. The remainder in this hilly region will stay as forest reserve.

 Sime Darby executives declined comment for this article. But one senior executive involved in the planning says the project will be spread out over "four decades". "Everything will depend on demand and we intend to pace everything out," says the executive.

 Property consultants point out that Malaysia Vision Valley will also become the natural extension for a region that remains as Malaysia's main economic powerhouse.

 The Klang Valley is home to more than a quarter of Malaysia's 28.3 million people and generates over 40 per cent of the country's annual gross domestic product.

But years of concentrated development have stretched the region's infrastructure.

"The (Malaysia) Vision Valley project is very much a natural progression to the region's development. It is a no-brainer," says the Sime Darby executive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'KL's ambitious Vision Valley mega project'. Print Edition | Subscribe