Country Garden's amibitious project in Iskandar

Country Garden's amibitious project in Iskandar
Country Garden's headquarters in Shunde, Guangdong, in China.
PHOTO: Hector Tan

Chinese property developer Country Garden is thinking big and long term as it embarks on one of its most ambitious projects yet. Forest City in Iskandar, which some consultants have estimated to have a gross development value in excess of RM100 billion (S$33 billion) over 20 years, will embrace the all-encompassing design approach it has used in several of its township developments in Guangdong, and add even more into the bargain.

The Guangdong-based firm, which is one of China's largest developers, does not just build homes; it builds an entire ecosystem that includes commercial districts, roads and even the water supply, and often with an emphasis on environmentally sustainable features.

Founder and chairman Yang Guoqiang notes in a rare interview on Tuesday, the first he has given to Singapore media: "Phoenix City (in East Guangzhou) may be on the smaller side but we have a five-star hotel, schools, water plant, everything. Because people are all after a good life. (But) you cannot cheat people, call lousy things good, and you cannot sell expensively."

Phoenix City is also how the group, which has been operating for over 20 years, made its mark. It is on a 667ha site but is continually expanding with about 30,000 homes and 150,000 residents, four commercial areas and nine schools. The project, which was started in 2002, is being built over 20 to 30 years.

Forest City, an even larger development, will also take years to be completed, says Mr Yang, who also noted concerns that too many homes are being built in Iskandar.

He acknowledges that there would indeed be too many homes on Iskandar if buyers came only from the local areas."But look at Dubai, which built many projects and a whole city in a short time frame. I believe people from all around the world will want to be in such a place that is far from strife, for example, next to Singapore.

"Our philosophy is that we will create the market and the customers will arrive...We build ahead of demand. You have to create a conducive environment that is attractive to residents and businesses."

Mr Yang believes Forest City will play a part in Singapore's development, allowing residents to enjoy the conveniences of big-city Singapore along with the relatively cheaper cost of living in Malaysia.

"In the long term, I envision that Singapore will be even more prosperous and attract more people. Given its small size, however, it cannot physically handle so many... Forest City can be their second home."

Forest City is Mr Yang's dream project in some respects. Tuesday's interview took place at his company headquarters in Shunde, Guangdong, where a 22- storey office building with a nine-storey podium sticks out in the landscape because of its vertical greenery.

Forest City will extend more of these green concepts, with roads below ground level while sky gardens, parks and lakes dot the landscape.

"Forest City can be a model for the cities of the future," he says.

While the project attracted attention last year for its reclamation activities, Mr Yang emphasises that the company abides by the rules.

"From the first day of our business, we have always operated according to government directives, and waited for their green light before going ahead.

"While there was previously some opposition from Singapore on the issue of reclamation, no business can always be smooth sailing. The most important thing is that we are law-abiding."

Country Garden is committed to taking into consideration the needs of the surrounding communities and preserving the ecology around the project, he adds, noting that it has donated RM3 million to the Fishery Association to help local fishermen. The company has also approached the Malaysian authorities about building a direct link to the Second Link or a ferry service.

Mr Yang says the company is in the region for the long term so he feels Singaporeans should not be worried that Country Garden's projects in Malaysia will not be built or maintained well. "We are not a fly-by-night company, or we would not have been operating for more than 20 years.

"We are a listed company on the Hong Kong stock exchange, and our every action is scrutinised...We have won multiple property awards from reputable industry bodies.

"I'm not here to build my billions and leave. I am here to build a lasting legacy as I view affordable homes as an important platform that contributes to the well-being of others."

This article was first published on December 18, 2015.
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