GEORGE TOWN - Singaporean real estate hunters with a taste for pre-war properties in Penang are still on buying sprees, says an NGO.
They are snapping up houses that are located just outside the state's heritage enclave as these properties are not accorded heritage protection by Unesco, according to George Town Heritage Action.
The biggest buyer appears to be World Class Land (WCL), which is building the tallest residential skyscraper in the planet's southern hemisphere.
Called Australia 108 because of its 108 storeys, the Melbourne development is expected to be completed in 2019.
WCL has since December 2013 reportedly snapped up 236 prewar houses in Penang, totalling more than 250,000sq ft - the equivalent of 26 football fields.
Recently, it applied to build a 46-storey condominium tower in Gurdwara Road, just 200m from Komtar after buying 37 prewar properties in that area.
Its latest block buy appears to be 26 prewar houses on Penang Road and Bertam Lane, also across from Komtar.
The properties were owned by six descendants of Tunku Kudin (1835-1909), the great grand uncle of the late first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, for nearly 100 years.
The offer from WCL was about RM980 (S$326) per sq ft, totalling RM21mil.
Tengku Abdullah Tengku Mahadi, 61, who collected the monthly rent from the tenants on behalf of his 92-year-old father, said the deal was sealed in Thailand through one of the six heirs who spoke for all of them.
"All the heirs are in their late 80s and 90s. It will cost too much to develop the land ourselves.
"We didn't really feel like selling. We know the new owner will change the whole place but we are all old and don't want to stand in the way of development," he told The Star.
He said the heirs only earned about RM50 per month from each unit when the Rent Control Act was in force.
After it was repealed in 1997, they raised the rent to about RM600 and it had stayed the same since.
WCL lawyers have sent eviction notices to the 60-odd tenants who have until end November to move out.
A subsidiary of Aspial Corporation Ltd, WCL has completed many projects in the island republic and Australia.
Aspial chief executive officer Koh Wee Seng is listed by Forbes this year as the 43rd richest man in Singapore.
George Town Heritage Action has been vociferously against the state government's apparent lack of control over the alleged WCL buying sprees.
"This company's business model is to buy the properties, evict the tenants, renovate or rebuild, and then drastically increase rentals," said its co-founder Mark Lay.
At a press conference yesterday, he showed a list of 236 properties purportedly bought by WCL through several subsidiaries.
Totalling more than 250,000 sq ft, these include rows of old houses along 19 roads, including Dato Keramat, Macalister, Transfer and much of the Seven Streets precinct (known locally as Chit Tiau Lor) near Komtar.
Lay warned that if the state government allowed "one company to accumulate more than 230 prewar houses, it will kill diversity and people's moral rights to the city".
"Our concern is also socio-cultural. Any company can damage the fabric of George Town when they have a monopoly," he added.
In June, The Star reported that Singaporean companies typically raise rentals by 400 per cent to 500 per cent after sprucing up the old houses.
In response, Penang Town and Country Planning Committee chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo had said that the state cannot interfere with free enterprise.