Forest City, Malaysia’s New Ecotourism Hub

ISKANDAR, Johor, Malaysia — Let us learn from the tourism successes of our ASEAN and Asian neighbors, as the Philippines is now gearing up for our own tourism boom with new infrastructure plans, anti-crime campaigns and an independent foreign policy that makes all the world’s big powers our allies.

One phenomenal project is the amazing “Forest City” ecotourism hub on four reclaimed islands by China’s Hong Kong-listed realty developer Country Garden and its Malaysian partners, ASEAN’s biggest and possibly the world’s largest mega-project of its kind.

Some local media here are calling it “the Shenzhen of Malaysia,” referring to the new mega-city beside Hong Kong. However, I believe the 2,025-hectare green, high-tech tourism hub Forest City is fast shaping up to become a more affordable Singapore. It’s located in the Iskandar development zone of Johor state in south Malaysia, just two hours by car from Singapore.

The New York Times cited its strategic location: “It is also surrounded by freighters. Just to the west of Forest City is Malaysia’s Tanjung Pelepas container port, which is busier than the ports of Los Angeles or New York. Across the water in Singapore lies an industrial district.”

On Aug. 4, the STAR and other media from ASEAN and East Asia were invited to witness a half-hour ceremony presided over by the 33-year-old Johor state Crown Prince Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, with the developer signing memoranda of understanding with 21 companies, including Chinese co-working space operator Nashwork and Foshan Hospital. Forest City hopes to sign 40 such MOUs every year.

Forest City is rising atop four reclaimed islands in the Straits of Johor, the thin strip of water that separates Malaysia and Singapore. That morning, Forest City also inaugurated Asia’s biggest Industrialized Building System (IBS) factory for pre-cast building materials utilizing technologies from Germany, China and Italy.

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Country Garden Pacificview chief strategy officer Yu Runze said that they plan to open sales offices in the Philippines and other Asian countries this year, which will diversify its target clientele beyond affluent Chinese investors.

Forest City’s visionary and Country Garden Group’s self-made billionaire founder Yang Guoqiang was with other taipans at a luncheon in Hong Kong in May, where President Duterte encouraged them to invest in the Philippines. Duterte spoke on his comprehensive reform plans, including his government’s serious anti-corruption efforts.

Envisioned to have 700,000 residents with construction starting last year, here are some of the features of this ambitious, 20-year, US$100-billion development project that could rival next-door neighbor Singapore, and tourism meccas Thailand and Bali, Indonesia:

1. Ecotourism. The entire development is blanketed with trees and greenery, similar to the tropical garden city style of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. All vehicles can park underground, with buildings layered with plants (to lower air-conditioning costs).

Forest City promises the world’s largest green-roof system with extensive ground-level parks, a waterfront trail system, and pedestrian-centric rooftop network of interconnected parks and gardens located on the top level of the infrastructure podium. Forest City will also have 31.4 linear kilometers of coastline and over 10 linear kilometers of restored mangroves to protect 250 hectares of shallow-water sea grass.

2. Information technology hub. One of the MOUs signed on Aug. 4 was with Hong Kong-listed PCCW Global, which offers world-class digital infrastructure, leading edge and energy-efficient data center solutions for Forest City’s futuristic digital framework. Companies and residents can access various best-in-class integrated communications solutions; also smart energy, transport and utility management services that are environmentally friendly, as well as protected from physical and cyber threats.

3. Medical tourism and wellness center. Apart from modern medical facilities, Forest City is distinguishing itself by investing in a world-class center for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to woo Asians, mainland China tourists and other foreigners. They signed an agreement with China’s prestigious Foshan Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine to establish a satellite facility in Forest City.

“The hospital has a particular focus on orthopedics and traumatology, thanks to its in-house research institute and a research laboratory focused on traditional Chinese medicine,” said executives of Country Garden Pacificview — the joint venture firm of China’s Country Garden with Malaysian partners Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd, whose main shareholder is Johor state Sultan Ibrahim Ismail and Johor state company Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor.

4. Sports and recreation center. Forest City is building three 18-hole golf courses, the first of which is designed by Jack Nicklaus and his son Jack Nicklaus II. One of the events at the ceremony was Johor Crown Prince unveiling the design of Forest City’s new 50,000-seat stadium for the Johor Darul Ta’zim football club. Forest City will feature many sports and recreational facilities to attract tourists, retirees, business people, investors, professionals and students.

5. Educational center. Malaysia is an educational hub for many foreign students and Forest City hopes to cash in on this. The 158-year-old private American boarding school Shattuck-St Mary’s is opening its Forest City campus to students starting August next year. This school is being built in three phases and will accommodate 3,200 students.

6. Retirement enclave. Forest City seems poised to directly compete with ASEAN neighbor Thailand as a major place for foreign expats and retirees to enjoy comfortable lifestyles. Country Garden Pacificview executive director Datuk Md Othman Yusof Othman said the Forest City project is expected to reinvigorate the “Malaysia My Second Home” program by wooing more foreign retirees to invest in and settle down in this country.

7. Entrepreneurial hub. Its architectural planners said Forest City is designed to encourage a live/work culture for “financial institutions, high-tech research and development facilities, headquarter offices, and a variety of creative industries that establish an innovative and sustainable employment base for the region.”

8. Shopping mecca. Touring the project, we saw local and foreign tourists visiting the diverse duty-free shops. Executives said more shopping facilities are opening.

9. Multi-cultural society. Forest City is capitalizing on Malaysia’s multi-cultural society, a secular majority Muslim nation with sizable chunks of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities. The Chinese community of Malaysia has a very high level of proficiency in Mandarin, the official language of China, Taiwan, Singapore and other places, while Malaysia’s British colonial past has made English also its official language. This cosmopolitan environment makes Forest City an ideal tourist destination.

10. Modern transport links. Forest City will be linked to Malaysia’s mainland and to Singapore via light rail and ferry systems, connecting to the planned extensions of both Singapore and Malaysia’s rapid mass transit infrastructure. At present, Forest City is just two hours away by car or tourist bus from Singapore’s world-class Changi Airport.

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