Tony Arnel

According to Norman Disney & Young’s global director sustainability Tony Arnel there are some strong business opportunities emerging in the sustainable building sector in the Asia Pacific and South East Asia regions, thanks to government support for sustainability that some in this country can only dream of.

Among them could be the interesting but perhaps even more challenging job of helping to rebuild Timor Leste, still suffering fro the ravages of its war for independence 13 years on but with coffers of $16 billion in its infrastructure fund thanks to oil and gas royalties from the Timor Sea.

Timor Leste prime minister Xanana Gusmão will be in Sydney soon to discuss those opportunities at a business networking lunch hosted by DLA Piper.

In a conversation on Wednesday afternoon with The Fifth Estate, Arnel was waiting to hear if his company had won one of the leading awards in the WorldGBC’s inaugural World Green Building Council’s Asia Pacific Regional Network Leadership Awards in Green Building.

The company had already been named a finalist and as far as Arnel was concerned that was a pretty good result. It was the only Australian company to reach that level and that the competition was 55 strong, including companies such as Arup and, as it turned out, regional giants such the eventual winners, Singapore’s City Developments Ltd, Keppel Land Ltd and India’s ITC Limited – Hotels Division.

All in all not a bad note to add to the calling card for new work in the region.

And Arnel himself had recently picked up World Green Building Council Chairman’s Award for 2014 after being a chair of both the Green Building Council of Australia and the WorldGBC for several years where he helped establish Asia Pacific Network says property companies in the Asian region are themselves star performers.

The Asia Pacific story is a standout in WorldGBC circles, Arnel says.

“The Asia Pacific network is one of the most successful in the world,” he says. “Countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have led the charge; they’ve been the best performing of all the GBCs.”

Right now, NDY is looking to move more resources into the region.

It’s already had an office in in Kuala Lumpur for about 30 years, currently staffed by about 80 people. But now Andrew Macgregor, previously director of the Perth office, is spending a lot of time in the area, working out how and where to position the company for an expansion.

Nothing is confirmed yet but the money is on Singapore.

Not that this would be any surprise. Singapore is increasingly on the radar for a growing number of property companies as a base for expansion into the region with an understanding that this is the new global hotspot.

Former chief executive of the Property Council of Australia Peter Verwer himself recently left a very long-term role heading the PCA and is now heading a similar but far bigger equivalent in Singapore, the Asia Pacific Real Estate Association, for similar reasons.

Positive governments help

“What we’re impressed with,” Arnel says, “is that many of the governments in the region have strong policy settings when it comes to dealing with the challenge of climate change and not only looking to mitigation but abatement possibilities with carbon. And the building sector remains one of the most obvious areas to target for this.

“In Singapore for instance the government has certainly transformed the marketplace with sustainable buildings but now it’s very focused on the existing building stock and it’s looking to incentivise building upgrades with existing stock especially those buildings that are 20 and 30 and 40 years old that can benefit from new technology.”

And that’s a serious opportunity. Arnel reckons that his company is “very well equipped” to pick up a share of that action, especially with how buildings can take advantage of new energy efficiency technology now in the market.

Timor Leste beckons

Another opportunity, also interesting but potentially more challenging, is Timor Leste.

The NDY Darwin team has been keeping in regular contact with this country on Australia’s doorstep and Arnel visited in March.

The country has $16 billion in an infrastructure fund and is “looking very closely” at a new port and redevelopment of the airport.

But 13 years after its war for independence Timor Leste still bears brutal scars of the conflict.

Timor Leste is “impressive”, Arnel says, judging from his visit in March, “but 13 years after the war and independence there is still a huge amount to do and in many respects it’s a quite a poor country”.

The capital Dili has expanded rapidly because people have come from other areas seeking work and to benefit from some of the money available in the capital but in Arnel’s view the positives have yet to translate to a robust economy.

In terms of governance, however, it is well served by a significant amount of work undertaken by former Victorian premier Steve Bracks. (See below for more details.)

“The governance structure is quite solid and is quite solid in terms of the machinery of government. All the government department are set up.”

Still there have been issues emerging with financial matters and the country has tried to “watch carefully” over any signs of corruption that might emerge.

Will the rebuilding of Timor Leste attempt to be sustainable?

This brings into the conversation the whole issue of small island states and the impact of sea level rises.

It’s certainly on the minds of many Asia Pacific nations, especially the smaller ones, and even for countries such as Malaysia it’s the prospect of sea level rise that’s driving government policies.

Meanwhile Timor is moving along. Its prime minister Xanana Gusmão is expected to be in Australia soon at a lunch hosted by legal firm DLA Piper.

“The task of rebuilding Timor Leste’s economy post-independence is a significant one and there is much to be done. Please join us for a briefing on the redevelopment of the economy and an update on foreign investment opportunities in this resources-rich nation,” the invitation note read.

Steve Bracks on Timor Leste

According to former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks who undertook extended pro-bono work in the country in the area of governance structures, there is much to be done in Timor Leste but none of it easy.

It won’t be easy for Australians to pick up work in Timor. Much of the building to date has been done by the Chinese, sometimes free of charge, in the case of the country’s military premises

In an interview last year, previously unpublished, Mr Bracks told The Fifth Estate: “Timor needs everything –better water, improved sanitation, roads; the systems needs are enormous.”

One current project is the relocation of the main port and potentially rebuilding the airport.

Some of these projects have Asian development partners, such as development banks and including the government.

Already in the country are Australian companies Toll and also engineering company GHD.

The Jape family of Darwin, which is originally Timorese, has recently built the large Timor Plaza hotel and shopping centre.

Bracks says Timor Leste is of great interest to China, which had been active in the country and built some structures, such as the defence buildings, free of charge.

He said, “sustainability is a key aim”, and there was a lot of work to be done in development, but it was essential to be well prepared.

Bracks said he had been working regularly in Timor Leste for the last six years, “pretty well straight after being premier”.

Xanana Gusmão phoned and asked if I could assist in government in government and anti-corruption and civil service and procurement authority and strategy plan for 20 years.

“And that’s where I have been for the last six years. About 30 trips for a week at a time.”

It’s been pro-bono work on his part but it’s also been supported by retired media mogul and columnist Harold Mitchell, with additional support from the UN.

Despite the anti-corruption work, Bracks says Timor is not especially riven by corruption.

Like many other countries – developed included – there is “minor cronism” in Timor.

“Timor hasn’t got any significant corruption.”

Against this background, he said, “Timor Leste has strengths. Its main economic activities are coffee plantation, maize, fishing and rice production and petroleum products.

There are plans to increase production, especially with farm recapitalisation and there is also potential to grow the hospitality industry, especially in its “very good” deep sea diving possibilities.