Malaysia’s Country Garden Forest City, the US$100-billion ‘ghost town’ caught up in China property giant’s woes


Another deadline looms next week over an unpaid multimillion dollar interest payment that again leaves it at risk of default.


Malaysia’s China-linked multibillion-dollar ghost town project stalled by Covid and capital curbs

Malaysia’s China-linked multibillion-dollar ghost town project stalled by Covid and capital curbs

“I hope Country Garden can overcome their financial difficulties,” said 29-year-old Zhao Bojian from Chinese province Henan, who bought one of 26,000 Forest City units for around US$430,000 five years ago.

“If nobody comes to Forest City, we cannot do business here.”

Sitting across from gleaming city state Singapore, the sprawling private town in Johor state was one of Country Garden’s many ambitious gambles that took the company to great heights but now risks crashing it back down to reality.
Launched under China’s Belt and Road Initiative with a company partly owned by a powerful Malaysian sultan, Forest City houses around 9,000 people, way below its 700,000 target.

Construction workers chip away at the island city by day while an eerie silence falls over its deserted four-lane highway at night.

A man sits in the hallway in front of the empty Forest City mall in Gelang Patah in Malaysia’s Johor state. Photo: AFP

Only a small number of lights shine from windows by evening across the project’s more than two dozen high-rise towers.

Below those sit rows of closed shopfronts, some with court documents stuck to doors demanding outstanding payments. Inside, rubbish is strewn across the floors.

Many buyers do not live in the artificial city, a security officer said, and instead stash their money as absent owners.

Model sculptures of the completed city’s four artificial islands – far from its current state – sit in the lobby of a sales showroom to attract potential buyers guided by Mandarin, Malay and English road signs.

Previous governments have opposed residency for expat investors, criticising the project as built only for foreigners.

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Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has stepped in to try to save Forest City as it threatens to become a white elephant.

Last week, he announced the creation of a “special financial zone” and perks including a special income tax rate and multiple entry visas.

Observers say Forest City faces an uphill battle regardless.

“The liquidity pressure could have an impact on their capability to complete overseas housing projects,” said Bernard Aw, chief Asia-Pacific economist at credit insurance firm Coface.

A three-hour drive from capital Kuala Lumpur, the city attracts visitors who want to catch a glimpse of the space-age towers or buy duty-free alcohol.

“Everyone comes here for the liquor,” said Singapore-based technician Denish Raj Ravindaran.

“I will not stay here, it is a ghost town. The road is dark and dangerous and there are no street lights.”

A view of closed shops in Forest City. Observers say Forest City will continue to struggle to find buyers for its units. Photo: Reuters

Much of the activity is foreign workers – many from Nepal or Bangladesh – maintaining the city’s bushes, sweeping its roads or guarding its towers.

An artificial sand beach littered with beer cans where families picnic under coconut trees also bears a sign warning would-be swimmers about crocodiles.

At one 45-storey tower, an official says only two floors are occupied while the rest are for sale.

As Country Garden fights for its survival, drastic efforts are likely be needed – from both Beijing and Kuala Lumpur – to get Forest City on its feet.

“I came here for a holiday after seeing TikTok videos,” said retail clerk Nursziwah Zamri, 30, from Malacca state.

“If you ask me if I would live here, the answer is no.”


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