Jun 26, 2014

    Is Malaysia's Iskandar losing its shine as a property hot spot?

    RED speckles of danger have surfaced in Malaysia's hot zone Iskandar on the back of frenzied building by gungho developers from China, stirring some agitation over the sustainability of what was once a buoyant property scene in Malaysia's southern growth corridor.

    Amid a housing slump back at home, China's real estate giants with great financial muscle and aptitude to finish projects in record time, are set to flood the Iskandar area with a huge supply of homes.

    If anything, the plans are lofty, from a sweeping media blitz in Malaysia and Singapore to trumpet their project launches, to reclaiming large swathes of land to raise a man-made island on the Johor Strait, and building 15 towers of 35-storey apartments under a single project.

    But the timing is starkly inopportune as Iskandar's property sector is in consolidation mode after ripping through record transaction volumes last year of RM30 billion (S$11.6 billion), up by a stomping 80 per cent from a year earlier.

    Pounding further on that soft patch this year is a string of property curbs, particularly for foreigners, that turned bullish foreign buyers of properties there - the majority of whom are Singaporeans - a tad weary.

    The signs are acutely evident.

    Brisk sales for new property launches that made developers gleeful are faltering.

    Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Malaysian firm UEM Sunrise's luxurious 34-storey block Almas Suites in Puteri Harbour, launched last December and priced at the conservative end.

    The project has so far drawn anaemic bookings of under 10 per cent, indeed somewhat heartbreaking for the developer who only a year earlier was euphoric that its high-end project, Teega, in the same area, was almost fully snapped up within the very first month that it was launched.

    But now Iskandar, which last year turned Johor into Malaysia's sweetest property spot, outdoing Klang Valley and Penang with an over 20 per cent rise in property prices, faces another test - can it keep steady amid the mammoth projects that threaten to smother its space?

    It's not just the pace of change that is unnerving, but also the type of change.

    Land reclamation works have begun for a man-made island - this project is led by China's largest developer, Country Garden, and reportedly backed by the Johor Sultan - off Tuas, on the Malaysian side of the Johor Strait. Given the proximity, Singapore recently expressed concerns over possible transboundary impact and has sought more information on the project.

    Iskandar, already beset by challenges, can ill-afford any potential geopolitical tension, particularly since its success so far is partly grounded on the warm relations between Malaysia and Singapore.

    Outside Malaysia, Singapore is also quite possibly the project's biggest cheerleader, investment dollars being the benchmark.

    The game-changing high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, which will no doubt sweeten Iskandar's proposition, is premised on this cosy rapport.

    Malaysia needs to send a signal that developments in the area are being done in a controlled, measured and, where necessary, diplomatic tone.

    For now, these comforting signs appear somewhat elusive.

    If left unchecked, the overbuilding could lead to a glut, dampen asset values and leave real estate investors out in the cold.

    If that happens, it could very well be an "I told you so" moment for investors and businesses that have painfully resisted the urge to step foot into Malaysia's booming southern state until there are convincing signs of long-term viability and sound planning.