JOHOR BARU: Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar moved into Istana Bukit Serene weeks ago from Istana Pasir Pelangi and the interview with The Star was at the new official residence overlooking Singapore.
Driving up the road leading to the palace, it was amazing to see several huge cages on both sides, with tigers, panthers and cats inside them.
The edifice, some 2km away from the Jalan Kolam Air entrance, was perched on a hill and overlooked a huge swimming pool.
Standing there affords a bird’s eye view of the huge estate that is beautifully landscaped and full of lush greenery.
We were ushered into the interior of the grand palace, passing through a large hall area with ornate wooden furniture and chandeliers, and huge portraits of the Johor royal family adorning the walls.
Sultan Ibrahim was already there to meet us, wearing a sky blue short sleeved linen shirt and in a jovial mood.
“Go ahead and ask me anything,” he said as we all sat down.
And throughout the hour-long session, the monarch took all our questions, including tough ones on his business ventures, Chinese investors coming to Johor, the change in the state’s weekend, rumours of a casino and his son’s liver transplant in China.
On the coronation
Q: Tuanku, The Star extends its congratulations to you on your forthcoming coronation. Your Royal Highness, why is the coronation taking place only after more than four years?
A: I felt there was no need to rush. The coronation is not a legal requirement. It is more of a customary requirement, but it is deeply entrenched in tradition.
The Sultan of Johor is confirmed and proclaimed by the Council of the Supporters of the Country on the demise of the late ruler. The oath of the sovereign and the proclamation fulfil the legality of succession.
The coronation may be held at any time the sovereign so desires after the ascension. The coronation is not a legal requirement but a customary tradition to enhance the sovereignty or daulat and majesty of the Ruler.
There was also the refurbishment of the necessary places for the event, including the Istana Besar.
It is also pertinent to note that Sultan Abu Bakar was crowned on July 29, 1886, 23 years after ascending the throne.
It is politically correct to apply the term “coronation” to the Sultan of Johor because Sultan Abu Bakar commissioned a crown for himself in 1886, to be used at the coronation of his successors, making Johor the first state to have a crown. Rulers of other Malay states have an installation ceremony on their ascension.
Q: What are the events planned in conjunction with the Coronation?
A: At least nine major events have been planned for the ceremony, which starts on March 16. This is not just my celebration but also one involving the people of Johor.
The celebrations are scheduled to stretch up to one month, including visits to all the 10 districts in the state.
I have been informed that the Sultan of Brunei, Malay Rulers, Governors, close members of the Johor royal family, and the Prime Minister of Malaysia and Prime Minister of Singapore will be attending the celebrations. State dignitaries will also be invited.
Aside from official souvenirs, there will also be commemorative postage stamps and first-day covers on sale that day. Bank Negara is also issuing gold commemorative medallions.
Q: What are your wishes and hopes for Johor?
A: I hope that people from all races will unite irrespective of their religion and belief. This is our home and it belongs to all Malaysians. This state is the home of all Johoreans regardless of race and religion. The people should also appreciate the stability of the state and, of course, Malaysia. We live in a multi-racial society. We must respect each other.
There is no room for extremism in Johor. Please uphold the values and principles of moderation.
The moderation path is not a cliché but one that has been long practised.
There has to be mutual tolerance and respect. There cannot be extreme left or right views. That is why the middle path and moderation is the best way.
Moderation is not something new, but it is best that we give serious thought to this principle now. I am glad that The Star is carrying out this campaign.
I want all races to be taken care of. That is why I insisted on a Chinese councillor being part of my state executive council during the time when MCA had rejected government posts.
Johor is unique and that is why I want all my subjects, regardless of race, to be represented in the state government.
On the economic front, I am aware of the various challenges since last year but I believe that we will be able to face the numerous challenges ahead as one nation and 1Malaysia.
On business, development and reclamation in Johor
Q: Tuanku, your increasing business and commercial dealings have become a talking point. The Johor royalty is involved in a variety of businesses, including a power plant (the 1,000MW-1,400MW Project 4A) and property development in Johor. How does the royalty balance what is good for the people and the state when it has a personal interest in so many businesses?
A: If you look at the history of the Johor royal family, we have been involved in business from the days of my great-grandfather. I have never tried to hide my business dealings using proxies, like some people do. I am open and transparent.
Tracing the Johor royal lineage, you would have seen how the Johor royal family has a long history of doing business. It began with gambier and black pepper during the early days. The late Sultan Abu Bakar, who was known as the “Father of Modern Johor”, was involved in this business in the 19th century. The late Sultan Ibrahim (1895–1959) was involved in rubber planting.
I was doing palm oil business when I was the Tengku Mahkota. Don’t tell me that once I become the Sultan I have to stop everything. I believe it is healthy for royalty to be involved in proper and legitimate businesses rather than to be in dubious businesses that harm the image of the institution. I want to pass this trade to my sons as they need to learn.
There are plenty of business opportunities for everyone in Johor and Malaysia. We cannot be competing with everyone as it would be virtually impossible. The pie is enough for everyone.
Let’s be honest here, we are a constitutional monarch. I have to earn my living like everyone else. I cannot depend on my allowances of RM27,000 a month. I must earn a living, like ordinary Malaysians.
I am sure Johoreans do not want to perceive me as one selling titles for my income. It is unfair to say that the private sector would be crowded out.
Look at the number of private companies doing business in Johor. It is a free market. No one is forced to buy anything from anyone.
Monopoly does not exist in Johor.
Q: What are your views on claims that the land reclamation works will affect Singapore’s shoreline?
A: There is plenty of land in Johor but the coastline is strategic. People only talk about reclamation by Johor, but not many are aware that land reclamation in Singapore reportedly started as early as the 1820s, during the colonial era.
Of course, it was very small scale then, but I just want you to know the history. In the 1960s, land reclamation began to be carried out on a large scale.
Singapore has reclaimed over 70sq km of land from 1960 to the present day, I am told.
According to one report, by 1990 the total land area of Singapore was 633sq km. This was an increase of 51.5sq km, which made up 8.9% of the total land area. With continuing land reclamation, Singapore’s land area will increase by about another 100sq km by the year 2030.
I don’t know if these figures are accurate but it is a fact that the shape of Singapore has changed because of aggressive and systematic reclamation. To put it bluntly, and you know that I am a straight-talking person, if Johor does not carry out reclamation, Singapore will and it has been doing so.
Why is it that no one talks about Singapore doing this landfilling work? Why is Johor being singled out? Johor has to do this because it is strategically necessary.
Then, there is talk of the environment. I have done my checking. There is not a single dugong that would be affected; get your facts right. According to the MB, a 30-sen fee has been imposed for every square foot of land reclaimed to help fishermen affected by the reclamation. It will bring in over RM104mil to help the fishermen.
Q: The 1,386ha Forest City property project has become a controversy. Forest City will be almost half the size of Putrajaya and will rise in the Johor Straits, southwest of Johor Baru, where the Second Link to Singapore is situated. It is a joint venture between Guangdong-based Country Garden Holdings and the Johor state-owned Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor (KPRJ).
A: As the Sultan, I welcome all investors, just as the mentri besar would. It would be insane for anyone to reject investments.
The Chinese investors have the confidence and foresight to believe that their money is well spent. It is their risk but they believe in the strategic position of Johor.
If there are any Americans, Britons, Australians or Germans who would want to put money in Johor, they are welcome, but where are they? If the Chinese are prepared to invest here, why should it be an issue?
Anyway, all this investment is good for the state’s coffers as the state government has recorded a fourth consecutive year of surplus in its budget. I expect the surplus to continue to grow as more projects and investments come into the state.
I am also confident that more Singaporeans would be purchasing homes in the state due to the weak Malaysian currency.
All these investments will be good as this will have a spill-over effect for other sectors such as retail, more job opportunities for locals and for the transportation services.
I am sure major development projects like the one in Pontian will help improve the living standards of the district, which is famous for seafood.
Q: Johor has seen a few major Chinese developers launching large-scale property projects. One developer, for instance, launched 9,000 units at one go and most are to be sold to buyers from China. But a large number of units are not sold yet. There are concerns that Johor is seeing an over-built situation and possible creation of ghost cities. Local developers have also been speaking up about preferential treatment to these overseas developers. Please comment.
A: The fear of a glut is just an assumption. All these homes will not be built simultaneously. Why blame the Chinese for investing in the state? Presently, 80% of property in London belongs to foreigners.
I do not think the Chinese developers would build these homes and then leave them empty. Do you think that these Chinese developers have not done their calculations, including capital recovery and the projected returns on the investments?
Some people talk about a glut in high-rise property units in Johor Baru. The Chinese developers are not going to build 80,000 simultaneously. Only 8,000 units are being built now. Anyway, not all these house buyers are from China as there are also locals, especially from Penang and Kuala Lumpur. There are also Singaporean buyers.
The future is in Johor because Singaporeans, not just Chinese, will be buying homes in Johor.
Homes are already beyond the reach of ordinary Singaporeans over there.
It is a political issue when the middle-class find themselves squeezed. Even in Malaysia, with its abundance of land, the young are finding it difficult to own a home, especially in the Klang Valley and Penang.
Once the links are in place, it will become the norm for Singaporeans to live in Johor and work in Singapore. That is the future.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents and expatriates, including Malaysians that I know, stay in Shenzen but commute to work daily.
We are talking about investing in the future and these Chinese investors know the Hong Kong and Shenzen scenario very well.
Over 200,000 people cross to Shenzen each day in just 45 minutes. That is how the cross-border culture has changed dramatically.
I think local developers just have to work harder. I believe that healthy competition among the developers is good for the industry.
Q: Is it correct to say that not many people dare to speak up against your Royal Highness? There is fear and respect, all mixed together. After all, you do have a controversial reputation.
A: (Laughs) Well, you are asking me tough questions. I think I am a friendly and easy-going person. I am straight-talking. I cannot stand hypocrites. I expect people to speak up. Be a man. You have asked me difficult questions straight to my face.
A lot of people, including some politicians in Kuala Lumpur, don’t know me but talk as if they know me. There are those who have preconceived ideas of me. I don’t blame them.
Johor is the right of Johoreans and only Johoreans know the situation and needs of Johor. Why should there be outsiders who try to interfere and teach us about what we should do in our own state?
Among the issues I raised in the past was that the Federal Government’s suggestion of imposing a minimum price of RM1mil for property that could be purchased by foreigners, was only suitable to be implemented in Kuala Lumpur.
I suggested that foreigners be allowed to buy high-rise property valued at a minimum of RM500,000 but for landed property, they should only be allowed to purchase houses that are valued at more than RM2mil.
I have also criticised the Petronas’ oil and gas project in Pengerang, as the company was not giving enough opportunities for locals to handle contracts related to the project.
I also suggested that a special team be set up to appeal against the decision on Pulau Batu Puteh made by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
To me, the ICJ decision favouring Singapore on the island’s ownership was a result of “outsiders” handling the matter.
On his son, Tunku Abdul Jalil
Q: On a personal note, there has been speculation over the health of Tuanku’s son, Tunku Abdul Jalil ibni Sultan Ibrahim (pic), also known as Tunku Laksamana Johor. Can you comment, especially on his liver transplant?
A: He is fine and well after the transplant, thanks be to God. The next five years will be very crucial for him as he needs to watch his food and his lifestyle.
I am grateful that he is alive and that is one reason why I have put aside RM10mil to set up the Tunku Laksamana Johor Cancer Foundation to help fund cancer patients who cannot afford the expensive treatment.
My son is lucky as he is my son. I understand the agony when a person is diagnosed with stage four cancer. Even my son did not believe that he would survive and neither did I. I want this fund to be self-sustaining and others can also donate towards this foundation.
We only discovered the cancer last year as initially my son was complaining of shoulder pain and was only treated at the local General Hospital, which just provided him with pain killers and sleeping tablets.
We only discovered that something was wrong while holidaying in London. After discussing with surgeons from Singapore, we decided to go for a full organ transplant in Guangzhou, China. They told me not to waste any more time.
I am thankful that the procedure went well and we were well cared for when in China.
The Chinese went to great lengths to help my son. They sent two doctors to Singapore to talk with the doctors there. They provided English-speaking doctors and nurses.
They also provided other facilities for me there. I am greatly touched and grateful to them.
I also want to thank my subjects as I was deeply touched when informed that thousands of people from all races and religions came together to pray for my son and my family. All those prayers certainly helped him.
On the Johor weekend
Q: Will the Friday and Saturday weekend for the civil service still remain or does Johor, as a developing state, plan to revert to Saturday and Sunday to compete internationally, especially with so much talk about doing business with Singapore? Or will the private sector be forced to change to Friday and Saturday as well?
A: It’s already over a year since Johor has had Friday and Saturday as the weekend. The aim of the change is to enable Muslims to perform their prayers without having to rush back to their offices.
I understand it has its implications for the private sector as well as doing business with Singapore. I am still in the process of gathering feedback from the public and private sectors.
> TOMORROW: Sultan Ibrahim’s thoughts on royal awards, rumours about a proposed casino in Johor, his relationship with mentris besar past and present, and more.