KUALA LUMPUR: EXCERPTS from an exclusive interview with Country Garden Pacificview Sdn Bhd executive director Datuk Md Othman Yusof.

Question: Let’s start with the background behind Forest City. How did it start, and what was the objective?

Answer: The idea started in 2015. At the time, I was in Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor. Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar wanted to see development more widespread in the state. Most of the developments at the time were on the east and south of Johor, from Pasir Gudang to Pengerang. He had some ideas and we spotted an area with potential.

Then we looked for investors who met the necessary criteria, including the financial strength and experience. We started with a China company that had already developed Danga Bay in Johor — Country Garden. We discussed with them and they showed interest.

Sultan Ibrahim also led a delegation to China to meet investors, and after visiting the site they saw potential. The area we were talking about was under water at the time, and the cost for reclamation would be high.

The other factor, I believe, is Country Garden’s confidence in Tuanku and the commitment that he would give all the assistance to develop this area. That’s how it started.

When we firmed up everything with Country Garden, we sought approval from the Department of Environment, and got our environmental impact assessment within a year.

When the “land” was alienated to us, it was just one island, a triangle, of about 2,025ha.

When we did our planning and survey, we found seagrass in the area, which we felt should be preserved. We engaged a consultant, did some studies, and we broke up the original single island to four islands, which would preserve the seagrass. We also worked with relevant non-governmental organisations in the preservation plans, and we are confident that it will be an attraction for tourists one day. That’s how the four islands started.

Q: Of the 15,000 buyers so far, the majority is from China?

A: Yes, because this company is well known in China. Property development is the same in any country. If you want to buy a house, first, you look at the developer. If it is a big name, there is confidence that the project will be successful, on time and of good quality. In the case of Country Garden, they have their followers. So when they build in Johor, automatically their investors are confident in the project. That’s how we got interest from China buyers.

And we needed a good kick-start. Once we have that, the rest will follow, i.e. buyers from elsewhere. If we cannot get a good kick-start for the project, you can say goodbye to Forest City in Johor. But Alhamdulillah, with the good kick-start from buyers’ confidence in Country Garden, we can move forward.

Q: Besides China, are they other foreign buyers?

A: There are many. We are targeting buyers and investors from the international markets. Country Garden will set up show galleries in the Middle East, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and other countries some time this year to attract global investors and house buyers to Forest City.

Q: To clarify, can we say there are already buyers besides China for the Forest City project?

A: Yes, including locals, and it’s picking up. What has been happening in terms of all the “noises” is turning out to be good advertising for the project. It’s not true at all that it’s only Chinese buyers.

Q: Country Garden, like other big China developers, has undertaken projects on a huge scale. How big is Forest City from Country Garden’s perspective?

A: I asked them the same question. For Country Garden, Forest City is the most challenging project outside China. Within China, they know their own country. This is the biggest they have done outside China. Like I said, they have more than 300 projects. If you want to see one project a day it would take a year.

Q: What about the accusations about the Chinese buyers getting citizenship after buying a Forest City property?

A: That has no basis at all. I read where it says after 12 years, they will have a right to citizenship. Actually, there is a difference between qualifying and having a right. A foreigner can qualify for citizenship after 12 years, but it’s not their right. Even if we go overseas and become residents, we can qualify to ask for citizenship but the government will finally decide. But it’s not true that if you buy property in Forest City you get citizenship. It’s not like a golf club membership. When I saw that, I thought it was not even an issue worth commenting on.

Q: Can you comment about current volatile markets and uncertainty?

A: It is true that we have witnessed an influx of developers over at Iskandar Malaysia. While the total number of properties has indeed increased following their entry, the number of exceptional properties does not always increase proportionately. Inevitably, there will be ups and downs along the development.

Forest City is a project wholly developed by reclamation. If it’s facing a soft market, we may opt to slow down the reclaiming progress. Furthermore, Forest City is being granted special incentives package such as the Iskandar Development Region status.

And this is where the CGPV comes in — if you look at our two projects in Iskandar, the hugely successful Danga Bay and the Forest City, we offer our buyers an excellent combination of quality, location and affordability. This differentiates us from other developers. We genuinely believe that good quality projects (irrespective of scale) will still be very much sought after.