Monday, March 4, 2013

Iskandar beckons, but investors beware

Conflicting info makes it hard for property consultants here to advise clients

The Straits Times | MARCH 04, 2013

[SINGAPORE] Iskandar Malaysia may hold out promise to Singapore firms seeking a reprieve from high costs, or to property investors hunting down a lucrative residential project, but the process of making an investment there appears tricky.

Property consultants here say that they have had difficulties advising clients interested in staking investments in the southern-Johor development zone because of conflicting information coming from lawyers and business consultants there on how to go about doing this.

For example, some property consultants have come up against the apparent lack of land zoning and plot ratio controls in Iskandar, which could mean that residential projects marketed as having sea views may not deliver on that front.

Interest in Iskandar has been rising, and is expected to continue growing as the Singapore government encourages firms to relocate some of their operations overseas. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in his Budget speech last week, had announced that help would be given to those who choose to relocate some operations offshore, including to the immediate region.

Tricia Teo, deputy managing director of property consultancy SLP International, said SLP set out to clarify the legalities underpinning the purchase of commercial and industrial properties in Iskandar before marketing Iskandar properties to interested investors here.

"But we realised that the Malaysian lawyers were telling us different things . . . and what the lawyers say and what the business consultants say also sometimes differed," she said.

For example, SLP tried to find out whether investors needed to set up a Malaysia-incorporated firm to buy commercial and industrial developments in Iskandar. One consultant told them there was no need for this, and that investors could make purchases in their own names.

But lawyers told them otherwise - that purchases need to be made under "Sendirian Berhad".

After checking with many more sources, Ms Teo said SLP found out that investors can, apparently, buy properties under their personal name, "no issue".

SLP also came up against problems regarding the loan tenure for freehold commercial and industrial properties.

Ms Teo said: "A banker, the head of the branch, told me you can only take a loan for up to eight years, which doesn't make any sense, because it is freehold property, and if our client is financially strong, loaning up to eight years makes no sense. Even for Singapore property, under the Singapore loan structure, you can get a 20-year loan for a 30-year leasehold property.

"So I asked him: 'Are you sure it is eight years?' He said, very firmly: 'Yes, it is eight years.' But we found out from other bankers that actually, this was not true."

These challenges are making it hard for consultants to provide advisory services to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and other investors keen on Iskandar, and those who decide to go it alone need to be even more careful.

"SMEs may have to pay a tuition fee, a very high tuition fee," said Ms Teo. "I guess their business environment and structure is still not that transparent. We can't really advise SMEs accordingly . . . so at SLP, we try to get the right consultants in Malaysia to work with them."

She added that SLP would still give advice on say, location, the price and the product; on matters such as the setting up of a company and the legal framework, it engages help from the Malaysian side.

Colliers International managing director Dennis Yeo said of the process that investors and SMEs have to undergo to buy commercial and industrial properties in Iskandar: "Going through the nitty-gritty administrative stuff is tedious and it's not easy. It's not an open book there.

"The situation is this: It is tougher now at this point than is expected because if you're not a big user or investor and if you deal directly with Iskandar's main parent investment group, you don't have the bargaining power because you're not a big company."

But even large investors have had a somewhat rough ride; some developers are said to have tripped up while trying to develop projects in Iskandar.

One big Singapore developer is said to have encountered problems with regard to the bumiputra equity ratio, said a lawyer who declined to be named.

In Malaysia, businesses are required to be 30 per cent owned by bumiputras - mainly ethnic Malays - although steps have been taken to relax this rule.

The Singapore developer had thought that the requirement did not apply for its investment in Iskandar - this exemption has been one of the widely reported benefits of investing in the region - but found out later that the rule did apply.

The lawyer said, however, that the Iskandar authorities have been very helpful with the case, and have advised the developer to put in an appeal to them.

A director at a property consultancy who declined to be named said he had tried - unsuccessfully - to get confirmation that investors are exempted from the regulations on bumiputra employment within Medini, one of Iskandar's flagship developments. (Medini's promotion brochures were said to have touted this.)

The director said: "I was with a different company back then, and we were hired by a sovereign wealth fund to help with the master planning for a project in Medini. So we were writing them (the Iskandar authorities) notes, asking them to confirm that within Medini, there would be no employment quota, but they just refused to confirm it in writing.

"I was working on this for around three months and by the time I finished with that project, the issue was still not resolved, although it could have been done later, directly with the fund."

There is also the matter of plot ratio controls - or an apparent lack of such controls - which could have an impact on residential property investments, he added.

He said that applications to develop 25-storey buildings are being given the go-ahead, but so are applications for 40-storey ones in the same area.

"So how can you assure me that my neighbour is not going to build a block that would just tower over me?" he asked.

He realised that there was little land zoning while marketing an integrated residential development in what has been promoted as a low-density neighbourhood, but came to find out that there were plans for two 30-storey blocks comprising 600 apartments in the area.

"And I thought, isn't this supposed to be a landed zone? Then I checked and realised that there was actually no zoning. There was nothing in black and white which said the development was in a landed zone. I suddenly felt so cheated."

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C

Senior Sales Director
DTZ Property Network Pte Ltd (L3007960A)

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