COMMENT | Most readers are aware that I have been a strong supporter of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he decided to join Pakatan Harapan in getting rid of former premier Najib Abdul Razak and BN rule.
I am proud to say that I joined Mahathir and Perak Harapan leaders during their election rounds in the state, and campaigned vigorously for them in my election speeches. I also provided financial support to all the four component parties.
It is truly gratifying to see that there is now a new state and federal government in place, and to know that a new Malaysia was reborn, in which I played a small role in assisting.
Since then I have been appointed as a member of an Economic Advisory Committee to advise the new Perak state government on how to revive the state's economy, which has stagnated after over 50 years of BN rule.
As an independent adviser, I feel it is important for me not only to monitor developments at the state level, but also at the national level. It is also necessary that I frankly assess these developments and communicate my concerns should there be any.
One issue has been in the public eye recently which warrants my speaking out.
This is the Forest City project taking place in Johor which has become the target of considerable press coverage – nationally and internationally – as a result of a statement made by Mahathir.
According to news reports, Mahathir told a business conference that overseas buyers will no longer be allowed to purchase homes in the US$100 billion Forest City development.
"One thing is certain, that city that is going to be built cannot be sold to foreigners. We are not going to give visas for people to come and live here.
"Our objection is because it was built for foreigners, not built for Malaysians. Most Malaysians are unable to buy those flats," he said.
Concerns over Dr M's stand
Much as I respect the prime minister, I feel that he has not only spoken out of turn, but also wrongly on this matter. Why do I say so?
Firstly, although the major developer is a China company, this is a private sector project which is unrelated to the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and the two gas pipeline projects under Suria Strategic Energy Resources Sdn Bhd (SSER).
The new government may have good reason to review or even cancel the ECLR and SSER. But I feel it has no locus standi to intervene in Forest City, and to prevent foreign buyers who have already bought into it from taking up their apartments.
Neither has the new government any legal right, in my view, from preventing the joint venture company between Hong Kong-based Country Garden Group and Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor associate Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd, from selling future apartments to foreign buyers.
According to a Reuters report, China nationals make up about two-thirds of the Forest City apartments' buyers thus far, with 20 percent from Malaysia and the rest from 22 other countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea.
Sure, there are many concerns and questions about the project arising from its approval by the earlier government and because of the interest of the Johor sultan in it.
Were there elements of vested interest and politics that were involved? Most likely. But is this a good enough reason for Mahathir to intervene?
I also remember that at the time of the project planning, objections were also raised by the Singapore government, which was concerned with the sheer scale of the development and its impact.
While Forest City does not cross the water boundaries between Malaysia and Singapore, large-scale dredging was seen as impacting water flows and silting through the channel.
In fact, the Singaporean government demanded a thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA), and complained to the Malaysian government, calling for all reclamation work to be suspended. It seems ironic that Mahathir and the Singaporean government now appear to be on the same page on this.
Despite these concerns – with many expressed publicly – the Forest City project was approved. Unfortunately, what has been done and approved by the state and federal authorities for Forest City cannot simply now be overturned just because Mahathir has expressed his disapproval.
Sending wrong signal to foreign investors
My advice to the prime minister is to let it go and not waste his precious time by continuing to harp or to act rashly on this issue.
I should emphasise that I myself am a strong supporter of local participation in economic development. But we need to take a case by case approach, and not simply base our position on ideology.
Firstly, if Mahathir thinks that foreigners are denying Malaysians of affordable homes in Forest City, he is wrong. They are really in a different much higher value market.
Secondly, he should realise that he is sending the wrong signal to foreign investors and purchasers of properties in Malaysia by pushing an ultra-nationalist position on Forest City.
It is also necessary to emphasise that I am not alone in thinking that Mahathir is making a mistake with his Forest City stand. His own office, the Prime Minister's Office, has clarified that foreigners are allowed to make Malaysia their place of permanent residence under Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) scheme.
"Conditions are clearly spelt out for those interested and information on this programme is also publicly available.
"On property purchased by foreigners, irrespective of nationality, Malaysia imposes certain conditions and information on these existing conditions are publicly available,” the PMO said in a statement.
According to Johor Mentri Besar Osman Sapian, Mahathir might not have the accurate information on the state’s policies pertaining to the project.
His position: “We always welcome foreign buyers, including those from China, to purchase residential properties in Johor, but at the same time we will safeguard the interests of locals.”
Please bear in mind the value of the Forest City is US$ 100 billion. Where can Mahathir find investors with so much money?
KOON YEW YIN, a retired chartered engineer, is a philanthropist. He is appointed to the Perak State Economic Advisory Council (SEAC).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.