KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 25 (Bernama) -- In the weeks leading into September, despite the baking heat, droves of families piled into their cars and headed for Malaysia's southern Johor state to queue for up tickets at Asia's first Legoland in Nusajaya.
An easy distance away, the Malaysian campus of the Newcastle University Medical School (NuMED) bearing the same famous red brick facade, has wrapped up the first year for its pioneer batch of students and opened a new International Student Village.
A little further to the north near the Senai International Airport, weekend trippers snap up discounted Burberry, Canali and dozens of other designer products at the Woodbury-styled Johor Premium Outlet (JPO) carved out from former plantation land in Kulaijaya.
The delectable mix of family entertainment, education and shopping have something in common. They are all inside the Iskandar Malaysia, the economic corridor straddling five flagship zones from east to west of south Johor, forming the largest mega region in Southeast Asia.
Launched in November 2006, Iskandar Malaysia is making heads turn by drawing bigger than expected investments and a list of prime tenants that also includes the world famous Pinewood Studios, global growth consultancy Frost & Sullivan and the first overseas campus of the exclusive Marlborough College, the alma mater of Britain's future queen, Kate Middleton.
IRDA in the cockpit
Based on a comprehensive development plan, Iskandar Malaysia has 20 years to transform into a global metropolis three times the size of neighbouring city state, Singapore.
Its boundary encircles state capital Johor Bahru city, Senai International Airport, several ports including the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, cargo hubs, industrial parks, a cyberport city, existing townships and the greenfield site of Nusajaya in the south west which houses most of Iskandar Malaysia's catalytic projects.
The growth of the 2,217 sq km corridor comes under the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) led by chief executive Datuk Ismail Ibrahim, a British-trained town planner and board member of the national conservation trust, Badan Warisan Malaysia.
"2012 is an exciting and tipping point year for us because several catalytic projects have been realised. Five years ago, few would believe that Iskandar Malaysia will happen the way we see it happening today. We are definitely happy with the results," said Ismail at his office in Danga Bay in the city.
"I am always tempted to say we have crossed the first bridge. We have been able to demonstrate that this strong collaborative effort between the public sector and private sector is working and Iskandar Malaysia is bearing fruits even at this early stage."
IRDA is not rushing the ground, said Ismail, "but we do have a lot on our plate because we are trying to meet the aspirations of the people and government to turn Malaysia into a fully developed nation by 2020."
Momentum rush from first waev projects
A key coastal highway from Johor Bahru city to Nusajaya opened in April this year. A drive along the six-lane expressway provides a bird's eye view of the developments dotting the Danga Baya waterfront and a man-made island, before rolling past modern residential blocks, Legoland and onwards to Kota Iskandar, the administrative seat for the state government.
Apart from Kota Iskandar and Legoland, nestled within Nusajaya are Educity, Afiat Healthpark, Medini central business district, Puteri Harbour and Southern Industrial and Logistics Clusters (SiLC).
By 2015, Educity will have at least 10 institutions including four British universities, namely NuMED, Marlborough College, University of Southampton and University of Reading.
The others are Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology, Raffles University, Singapore Management Development Institute, Johan Cryuff Institute for Sports Studies, Raffles American School and Multimedia University.
Marlborough College opened in August to welcome co-ed students aged 11 to 18 to its extensive grounds with rugby fields and cricket pitches. The University of Southampton shifted into Educity a month ago while MMU will move a cinematic arts degree course in a tie-up with the University of Southern California to Educity in 2014.
After the opening of Legoland on Sept 15, Iskandar Malaysia will have a second family fun outlet when Puteri Harbour unveils its indoor theme park with popular animation ambassadors like Hello Kitty and the first "Lat's Place" restaurant named after Malaysia's much-loved cartoonist in November.
In healthcare, a 300-bed Gleneagles Medini Hospital with 150 suites, rehabilitation centre and nursing home among its facilities is being constructed in phases after Columbia Asia Hospital which was the first to set up in 2010.
Investment commitments in Iskandar Malaysia are barreling towards the RM100 billion- mark against a RM385 billion target by 2025. By the second quarter of 2012, the cumulative sum has hit RM95.45 billion.
Frost & Sullivan, author of the influential "World Top Global Mega Trends to 2020" report, opened its Global Innovation Centre (GIC) in Medini in August with five centres of excellence for consulting, finance, innovation, digital media and a growth innovation leadership university.
Global president Aroop Zutshi declared the development of the GIC would be a 'real game changer' for the company and also create new knowledge-based activities and specialised skills to support Malaysia's goal of becoming a high value and high income nation by 2020.
When asked if IRDA had made a hard pitch, Ismail quipped: "Companies like Frost and Sullivan do their own homework."
The Financial Times-owned fDI magazine has ranked Iskandar Malaysia as the fourth best investment destination of Global Free Zone of the Future 2012/2013, behind the Dubai Airport Free Zone, the Dubai International Financial Centre and Shanghai's Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone.
Next milestones and more clusters
The gush of tipping points projects continues to roll off the line in the second five-year development phase spanning 2011 to 2015.
The Medini site for Pinewood Studios, famous for the productions of James Bond, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes movies, is buzzing with the construction of construction of television studios, film stages and post production sites for delivery early next year.
Ismail said the investment community will get another strong signal next year when Khazanah Nasional Bhd and Temasek Holdings, the respective sovereign wealth funds of Malaysia and Singapore, jointly undertake two wellness projects in Medini for which two parcels of land have already been earmarked.
"The tourism, healthcare, education and creative sectors are coming along fine. In the next few years, we will be building the remaining sectors, finance, oleochemicals, food and agro processing, electrical and electronics, and logistics.
"Despite the uncertain global outlook and the Euro crisis, we have been doing well and we will leverage on the momentum we have now. We are targeting RM73.3 billion worth of investments during the next five years to achieve around 8 per cent economic growth towards our goal of RM385 billion by 2025," Ismail said.