Just 1 km across the water from Singapore, Johor Bahru (JB) has long been in the shadow of its glamorous neighbour, but now both the local and federal governments are stepping up efforts to transform the city of 1m people into a vibrant 21st-century metropolis. JB is in the midst of a major makeover, both as one of the five development zones of the Iskandar Malaysia project and as one of four “growth catalyst cities” identified in the 11th Malaysia Plan, which charts the country’s economic development up to 2020. These cities were chosen according to factors including population size, GDP contribution, major infrastructure and geographical advantage.
JB is home to 45% of the entire population of Johor, according to a report by the Khazanah Research Institute. “As global competition for investment and talent is now between cities, Malaysia will develop several of its first-tier cities to become globally competitive and serve as growth catalysts,” the report said, stressing that cities played an important role in economic growth by providing investment and trade opportunities. It said that it was imperative to invest in cities to attract and retain investment.
Growth & Neglect
JB’s history dates back to the 16th century, when it started out as a fishing village. In 1855 modern JB began to emerge when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim built a police station and law courts. Structures from the 19th and early 20th century remain, including the Sultan Ibrahim Building. Redevelopment of the Customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) complex at the causeway to Singapore led to the city centre being neglected, as residential buildings were demolished and visitors headed to shops and restaurants in the suburbs. The Iskandar project, meanwhile, meant that most construction took place on greenfield sites, leaving JB relatively untouched.
Now attention is returning to the city, and the potential of brownfield sites. People will be encouraged to make their homes in the city, and significant views and vistas will be preserved. Indeed, one of the earliest reasons for redevelopment of the CIQ complex was to make more of JB’s waterside location. (thesaddleroomrestaurant.com) Some shopping centres have already been upgraded. Komtar JBCC, originally known as the Tun Abdul Razak shopping complex, reopened in July 2014 following a major renovation led by developer Damansara Assets, a subsidiary of the state development company Johor Corporation. Connected to the CIQ by a footbridge, the centre houses international brands such as Marks & Spencer, as well as the Angry Birds Activity Park, which opened in October that year.
In November 2015 Johor Corporation launched the RM20bn ($5bn) the Ibrahim International Business District plan to rejuvenate the city centre. The project will focus on improving major infrastructure, and will include new office towers and complexes linked by pedestrian bridges. At the heart of the 100-ha development will be Coronation Square, a new business district occupying the site of the old taxi and bus terminal close to the border with Singapore. It will feature two hotels, serviced apartments, medical suites and a mall covering an area of 80,000 sq feet.
The authorities want JB to emulate its neighbour Singapore. The rejuvenated CBD is expected to offer investors up to 17 parcels of land. “JB is located next to one of the most advanced and developing metropolises in the world,” Johor’s ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, was quoted as saying in the Singaporean media. “Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world and the flow will come to JB. If JB wants to be regarded as an international city, then it has to act and think like an international player.”
On The Waterfront
Another developer that is involved in redeveloping the city is Iskandar Waterfront Holdings (IWH), which is 40% owned by the state government through master developer Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor. The plan is to turn JB into a waterfront city similar to Shenzhen in China, by seeking out the owners of abandoned city centre properties and buying up the plots for redevelopment. The company has sought the expertise of developers such as Australia’s Walker Group and China’s Country Garden. “We want to beautify the city, clean up the seabed and sewerage, and improve the landscape and traffic flow,” Lim Kang Hoo, the CEO of IWH, told The Star newspaper. The company is also planning a new uptown city in Danga Heights, north of JB city centre.
The makeover is not only about big-ticket projects. The authorities are focusing on infrastructure, including cleaning up rivers. Sewage pipes along Sungai Segget, which runs through the city and is one of Malaysia’s dirtiest rivers, are being moved in an attempt to improve water flow as part of a rejuvenation project that involves water quality improvement and river beautification.
Under Iskandar Malaysia’s Comprehensive Development Plan II (CDP II), development is divided into three areas – the main business district, the waterfront, and a zone for heritage and culture. Some RM1.6bn ($396.1m) is set aside for city centre improvements. Projects will include the conservation of Kampung Mahmoodiah, one of several “urban villages” in the city, as well as improvements and beautification in the city centre area. Housing and residential areas have also been earmarked for upgrading. “JB lacks the focal point that most world-class cities have,” the report said. “This focal point would help to emphasise its importance as a major business centre. By creating an urban core in the city centre it could further enhance real estate values in the city.”
The CDP II also aims to tackle increasing road congestion, and targets improved provision of services to ensure that 50% of journeys involve public transport by 2025, compared with 10% in 2012. Foremost among the planned transport projects is the rail transit system (RTS) link that would connect JB to Singapore and reduce traffic on the causeway.
The city’s mayor, Rahim Nin, who took office in 2015, has indicated that efficient public transport will be crucial to the city’s success. Rahim told the Malay Mail that the authorities were keen to introduce a more comprehensive bus service and the RTS link so that residents would not need to use their cars, especially when travelling over the border. The rail connection to Singapore is unlikely to be ready for a few years, however. While Malaysia has agreed to locate the terminus at Bukit Chagar, talks on the crossing between the two countries are continuing. Once agreement is reached it will take at least two years to complete the necessary engineering study before construction can start.
The JB of the future is also likely to have more open spaces. Under the CDP II the open space standard is expected to reach two ha per 1000 population by 2025, compared with 1.45 ha per 1000 population in 2012. The master plan envisages a linear park in the central business district, which will be part of a network of parks. Over the longer term, the plan to transform JB into a “catalyst” city will be worked out based on the findings of a study completed by the World Bank in 2015, aimed at capitalising on the economic potential of each of the cities and nurturing growth beyond Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley.
Specific plans will be drawn up, taking into account each city’s competitive advantages. These will be formulated by the respective local authorities in consultation with the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders, but are expected to follow six principles: high economic density to nurture innovation and collaboration; development oriented towards public transport and pedestrians; a focus on investment in education and creative industries; livability; sustainability; and inclusivity. Johor Bahru City Council has identified three key strengths for JB: its proximity to Singapore, its 1.5-km waterfront, and its history and culture. The authorities have documented more than 250 heritage buildings worthy of conservation in the city centre. The competitiveness plan is expected to be ready by the end of 2016.