KUALA LUMPUR - HIS name is Lim Kang Hoo, but you could call him Lim 'Gung-ho'.
He is a man of few words, except when he starts talking about Johor's Iskandar Development Region. Then he waxes lyrical about the project's potential.
'What we can do here is so huge. It's a chance to make a big statement for Johor and Malaysia,' says the businessman and controlling shareholder of medium-size property firm Ekovest Berhad.
The 51-year-old has every reason to be optimistic about the ambitious plan. He is credited as one of the early architects of the Iskandar project.
Datuk Lim, who hails from Selangor, had his first taste of business selling brassieres in a makeshift stall along Kuala Lumpur's notorious Chow Kit Road after completing secondary school.
He moved into construction in the 1970s, building roads, factories and high-rise office towers. In 1988, his majority-owned Ekovest was listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.
He is reluctant to talk about how he got Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's government to turn his idea into a massive national project.
But people close to the businessman say that it all began sometime in late 2000 when he helped rescue a financially troubled Johor-owned company.
In return, Datuk Lim was awarded a privatisation contract from the Johor government to develop 561ha of waterfront land along what was previously known as Lido Beach.
Construction began in 2000 and so far he has sunk over RM500 million (S$222 million) into reclamation work and real estate development.
When Singapore began mapping out plans to reshape its tourism sector with two Integrated Resorts, Datuk Lim and his project planners sniffed an opportunity.
'We felt that the rustic charm of Johor's surroundings could offer a lot to the tourists visiting Singapore,' said Mr Christopher Yeow, Danga Bay's project manager.
PROPERTY BOOM: With strong demand for homes in Danga Bay, property prices have risen by 40 per cent over last year. Development is expected to be in full flight by the third quarter of this year. Photo/ THE NEW PAPER
Slowly, Danga Bay morphed into an ambitious undertaking to convert the 25km coastal strip into a waterfront city boasting a financial district, an eco-tourism theme park, upscale resort hotels and homes.
But Datuk Lim needed partners with the financial heft to get all his plans off the ground.
With the backing of the Johor government, he pushed his vision for Danga Bay to federal government officials, who at the time were tinkering with ideas to turn southern Johor into a new economic zone.
Before long, officials from Khazanah Holdings, Malaysia's strategic investment arm, saw how Danga Bay's integrated waterfront development could fit in with the plan for a massive southern redevelopment.
Also, the government decided to take a stake in the Danga Bay development.
Late last year, a joint-venture company was established, with the state controlling 63.5 per cent of a new entity called Kota Selat Teberau, which will be the corporate vehicle for the development of the integrated waterfront city.
Datuk Lim's privately owned Danga Bay Sendirian Berhad holds the remaining 36.5 per cent.
The businessman says that he wants to mesh elements of Sydney's Darling Harbour and Toronto's Waterfront in the development of Danga Bay.
'It will be the oasis for Johor Baru,' he said.
So far, 242ha have been reclaimed, stretching from the Causeway to the Second Link.
Datuk Lim's companies have built and sold 300 apartment units. The strip also features street malls, restaurants and a promenade boardwalk.
The Danga Bay developer is also close to completing 120 units of Mediterranean-style homes. So far, 80 per cent of the development has been sold.
Datuk Lim expects development for the waterfront city to be in full flight by the third quarter of this year.
'The first phase of development will have a strong tourist component because we want to complement Singapore's Integrated Resorts,' said Datuk Lim, adding that investors are buying in too.
He says prices for the project on Danga Bay have already jumped by 40 per cent over last year.
Prices could spike further if Malaysia and Singapore agree to connect a planned monorail system in Johor Baru with Singapore's MRT network.
'The Johor projects are meant to complement (Singapore) and that is why Iskandar will work,' says Datuk Lim.
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