Southern economic zone investment on track


PULAI, Malaysia: Malaysia has attracted a fifth of its initial investment target for a huge development project close to Singapore, and signed leisure deals for the project with luxury Aman Resorts and a budget hotel linked to no-frills carrier AirAsia, officials said. 

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Friday the project in Johor state has won endorsement from an advisory panel that includes Southeast Asia's richest man, Johor-born Robert Kuok. 

The target of attracting almost 50 billion ringgit (US$14.29 billion; euro10.9 billion) to the South Johor Economic Region project over the next five years is on track, Abdullah told reporters. 

Government investment wing Khazanah Nasional Bhd. aims to attract about US$105 billion (euro80.1 billion) over 20 years, managing director Azman Mokhtar said. 

The prime minister said the zone should ideally "represent the best Southeast Asia has to offer'' in order to compete with economic hubs in Dubai, UAE, Shenzen in China and the Indian city of Bangalore. 

"I'm personally very happy,'' he said after a meeting with the advisory panel.  

"They believe that the South Johor development region will be successful. We have to work hard to be competitive.'' 

Reclusive billionaire Kuok, who declined comment, is one of five members of the panel, which also includes former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam. 

Government investment arm Khazanah Nasional Bhd said it has "received specific letters of intent or indications of interest'' for about 10 billion ringgit (US$2.85 billion; euro2.17 billion) in investment from the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. 

The project, with a development area of 2,217 square kilometers (856 sq. miles), includes business, leisure and manufacturing facilities, as well as an Islamic financial hub, biofuels processing facilities and educational institutions. 

Two theme parks will also be built. Azman said his officials have been speaking to a number of developers, but not Universal Studios, which is building a park in neighboring Singapore. 

The project is intended to boost Johor's economy by an average 7 percent a year over the next 20 years, Khazanah said in a statement. 

Officials have said the project should create 800,000 by 2025. 

Khazanah said Aman Resorts is expected to complete a resort in the area, the company's first in Malaysia, in 2009. No figures were disclosed. 

"Aman Resorts fell in love with our mangroves,'' Azman said, adding that a slew of incentives to attract companies would be unveiled soon. 

Apart from tax breaks, he said they could commit companies to development and higher education aid for local residents to help eliminate problems faced in other areas when locals have been forced out of the area. 

Aman has resorts in Indonesia, Thailand, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, among others, and was named the world's leading international hotel group in a survey by hotels survey firm Zagat in 2006. 

Tune Hotels, a no-frills hotels chain partly owned by AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes, said Friday it will open at the project's leisure site in Danga Bay early next year. 

Tune's project is valued at 15 million ringgit (US$4.28 million; euro3.27 million), Fernandes said. 

It intends to sell rooms from March 2008 and will offer packages with AirAsia. 

Abdullah said members of the advisory panel were not asked to invest in southern Johor, but to provide opinions and advice. 

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