Malaysia invests in a fresh start for business

The government wants to create its own rival to Singapore from scratch, writes Jamie Dunkley

Set in the lush surroundings of the Wiltshire countryside, Marlborough College is every bit the classic British institution. Founded in 1843, the £31,350-a-year boarding school counts Sir John Betjeman, Samantha Cameron and the Middletons amongst its alumni, yet its latest venture is more than 6,000 miles away

Marlborough is just one of the many British investors in Iskander, a 772-square mile development bordering Singapore at the southern tip of Malaysia.

The project has already attracted £25bn in investment since it was created in 2007. As well as Marlborough College, Pinewood Studios, Thistle Hotels, Newcastle University and the University of Southampton have already set up shop. Merlin Entertainments also opened Asia's first Legoland in the area last year and more look set to follow.

Khairil Anwar Ahmad, head of state-backed developer Medini Iskandar Malaysia, says the urban township of Medini – which he hopes will eventually have a population of half a million people – is the centre point of the plans.

As well as regenerating a part of Malaysia that needed investment, he believes it can become one of the most important centres in the fast-growing region of south-east Asia and compete with larger rivals such as nearby Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

"Before we started this project, Iskandar was the kind of place you passed through on your way to somewhere else," he says.

"We are developing a township that will be a catalyst for economic growth across the region. All the infrastructure is completed – the roads, the rail network, the power supply. We want to promote sustainable development and reduce the carbon footprint in Iskandar."

The developers are hoping to attract investment in areas such as education, leisure and tourism, healthcare, creative industries and logistics. British financial services providers are also at the top of Mr Ahmad's wish-list and he believes the fact that Iskandar is becoming an attractive place to work, live and study will attract big businesses.

"We have spoken to British companies who say they find Singapore too costly and are considering Iskandar as alternative destination to base some of their operations. One British bank, for example, is considering moving 2,000 staff out of Singapore and is looking at Iskander as an alternative."

It is not just British companies that are taking advantage of the generous incentives –including tax breaks – being offered by the Malaysian government. Chinese developers have bought land in Medini while large US corporates like consultancy Frost & Sullivan have rented commercial space. Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff has even opened an Institute for Sports Studies.

Mr Ahmad adds: "Investments like Pinewood are creating a whole new ecosystem that wasn't in the country before ...make-up artists, sound men, carpenters for the set - demands for all types of companies. We are very privileged and proud to have companies like this planting their flag in Iskandar."

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