Artist's impression of Nusajaya

The Malaysian and Singapore governments could teach the Australian government a thing or two about prioritising fast transport systems and building sustainable city precincts with integrated technology. This was glaringly obvious on a recent study tour for Australian journalists organised by Malaysian government-owned property developer UEM Sunrise. It was an opportunity to understand how governments in Malaysia and Singapore collaborate with developers to deliver infrastructure and better cities planning.

A recent entrant to the Australian market, UEM Sunrise is Malaysia’s largest property developer specialising in large-scale masterplanned communities and precincts in Malaysia. And as the wholly owned property development arm of the Malaysian government, the company’s emphasis on environmentally and socially sustainable development tends to reflect that of the government.

Take for example the masterplanned city development in Johor, Nusajaya, where all major infrastructure – including freeways, a second road link to Singapore, port development, education facilities and recreational facilities – was in place prior to completion of residential dwellings.

Planning for the project, which covers 9700 hectares, began in the ’90s and once completed Nusajaya is expected to be a key regional city with strong links to Singapore, less than a kilometre away via the soon to open ferry connection. It will be an economic zone to complement Singapore in a similar way to China’s Shenzen and Hong Kong.

The governments of Malaysia and Singapore have cooperated to ensure there are strong links between Nusajaya and Singapore. There is a well established industrial precinct in Nusajaya with considerable investment from Singaporean businesses. And commuting between the two countries is about to become much easier with the two governments agreeing to develop a high speed rail connecting Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and cutting travel time from five hours to 1.5 hours. The last stop on the journey is Nusajaya.

The Nusajaya development has multiple developers onsite, each focusing on different aspects of the community – residential, industrial and port, healthcare, retail, hospitality and an education precinct (which includes a campus for Australia’s Monash University). There is even a joint venture with a Singaporean billionaire to create a Formula 1-standard racetrack for individuals with a penchant for speeding. And 138 hectares have been set aside to be preserved as forest and parkland.

It’s a far cry from the Australian way – build first, worry about the roads, rail and services later.

In its expansion into Australia UEM Sunrise has been maintaining the focus on linking developments to transport systems and green space. In Melbourne it has one site over a railway station in the CBD, another overlooking Carlton Gardens on the CBD fringe and one on a major thoroughfare.

Directors of the company, including Australian architect Professor Philip Cox, have been frustrated at the difficulty facing developers who want to create quality apartments with a focus on sustainability in Australia’s cities, particularly Sydney.

“Sydney is so bloody hard,” Professor Cox says, citing the recent influx of cashed-up investors from Europe and Asia, many who aren’t interested in getting a return on their money but “are there to buy property and sit on it”.

His frustration over the influx into Australia of investors and developers with little interest in enhancing local communities echoes views of many participants in The Fifth Estate’s sustainable precinct events.

Sydney has proved a difficult market for companies intent on building to 4 or 5 Star Green Star standard. UEM Sunrise was an underbidder for a site near Green Square but Professor Cox would like to see it use its community-building credentials on a project like the Bays Precinct in inner Sydney.

“The Bays Precinct could be a very interesting project and I’ve encouraged the company to look at it. But we will be in competition with everyone else and we’ll have to sharpen the pencil enormously if we’re going to win there.”

Speaking in Malaysia, on the eve of launching the company’s third project in Melbourne in early September, chief executive Anwar Syahrin Abdul Ajib said the company was very interested in expanding its operations in Australia but would only do so if projects met strict criteria.

“The main thing is the market itself. We have to be confident that what we acquire is something we can sell. That’s why we like mature markets like Melbourne and Sydney.

“Second is the turnaround of the project. We must be able to launch a project within 12 to 18 months of acquiring a site.”

Cooperation between countries

In Singapore, the Malaysian and Singapore governments have cooperated even further to create some key sustainable developments including Marina One, a high density, mixed-use development in the heart of Singapore’s new Marina Bay financial district.

The co-operative agreement harks back to the time when Singapore was still part of Malaysia and Malaysia developed an extensive rail system throughout Singapore. Malaysia still owned the rail tracks and the land around them until recently when the two governments agreed on a land swap – Singapore got the rail tracks and land and Malaysia got two prime sites in the Singapore financial district, one in the heart of Marina Bay.

As a result of that land swap a joint venture was formed between Malaysian government-owned Khazanah National Berhad and Singapore government owned Temasek to develop the sites. UEM Sunrise is project manager.

On the Marina Bay site, the Marina One development is testament to the power of a cooperative approach and represents the importance both countries place on creating more sustainable cities.

Designed by German architectural firm Ingenhoven Architects, one of the principal architects on Sydney’s 6 Star Green Star 1 Bligh Street, Marina One’s office towers meet the LEED Platinum pre-certification and Singapore’s Green Mark Platinum standards.

The development has direct connection to four out of the six Singaporean MRT lines and bus stations as well as the provision of bicycle parking spaces and e-car loading.

Sustainability features in the two residential towers include air wells and slots to allow natural ventilation, an external sun-shading system, PV cells, high performance glazing to reduce direct solar radiation, recycled water for toilet flushing and a rainwater harvesting system.

The cost of sustainability

Philip Cox would like to see much more emphasis on sustainability across all developments but says cost can make this difficult, particularly in markets like Sydney where pricing is out of control.

“We’ve got to return to sensible design and to harnessing our own energy through solar collectors, small wind turbines and through the use of technology to control these things,” Professor Cox says.

“And we must make sure that buildings don’t absorb energy through their orientation or facades so that people don’t feel compelled to use airconditioning. We should be limiting the use of airconditioning even in climates like Malaysia through the use of breezeways and fans.

“As a company we encourage these things and have a policy of encouraging the use of technology as far as we are able. It happens to a certain extent. We don’t always get the highest green rating, which we should, but it is costly. To get the top rating adds another 10 to 15 per cent to the cost. Where we have buyers who are prepared to pay that extra cost we can do it.”

In Australia the federal government has made it even harder by discouraging the renewable energy sector and not embracing passive energy systems:

“It’s only because we have the greatest coal reserves in the world and we’re selling coal – the biggest polluting material of all – to India and China, which is immoral in my view.”

Affordable housing should be a priority

In another area – affordable housing – Australia could learn a lot from Malaysia and Singapore, Professor Cox says. By law, Malaysian developers must set aside a certain proportion of space for affordable housing in every new development or contribute the equivalent in funds to build affordable housing elsewhere.

He is critical of the lack of affordable housing in Australian developments such as Barangaroo and other inner city projects. There has been some controversy over how much space will be allocated to affordable housing at Barangaroo, with the City of Sydney pushing for an allocation of at least 10 per cent, and recent reports suggesting Lendlease was looking to build its allocation off site. Lendlease confirmed to The Fifth Estate this week that it is allocating 2.3 per cent of total residential floorspace to key worker housing, and that it will be built on-site.

But Professor Cox believes much more needs to be done if the centres of our cities are to remain sustainable and accessible to all, not just the privileged.

“In Malaysia developers have to provide affordable housing and it’s reasonably good housing. In Australia there’s no such thing as affordable housing and no such thing as proper public housing. The model for public housing is only rental and there is no incentive for people to look after it.”

Singapore has the solution, he says. There, 80 per cent of the population live in public housing developed by the Singapore Housing and Development Board, and residents are able to trade their property, in essence giving a level of ownership. The Singapore government has also done much to improve public housing energy efficiency, which has a major impact on the way that most Singaporeans live, and in turn helps the country reach its emissions targets.

The Malaysian government is attempting to “pepper” affluent communities with affordable housing and offers subsidies to potential buyers so they can afford to buy a property.

According to a report from the Malaysian government on the problem of affordable housing, it plans to develop an integrated database on housing to ensure housing supply matches needs according to location, price and target group. The private sector will also be encouraged to develop public housing through public private partnership.

“It is the role of government to fund the gap between market value and what is affordable,” says Professor Cox.

He would like to see community-focused developers in Australia move into growth precincts outside the CBD, such as Parramatta and other parts of western Sydney.

“That’s why we looked at Green Square and around the area. It had the appeal of being close to transport and to universities and we saw it as very middle market in terms of affordability.

“Not that you can call anything in Sydney affordable but it was in the price range where we thought there would be takers.”

Lynne Blundell is a freelance writer and journalist. She is a co-founding editor of The Fifth Estate and specialises in writing about sustainability in the built environment, and also writes about design, technology, health and finance.

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  1. We have so much to learn!!! Our developments are so sad by comparison. When Ms Blundell says:
    We “…build first, worry about the roads, rail & services later”, she is so right! We only have to look at new suburbs like Oran Park to see this. We’ve known for years that Badgery’s Creek Airport was on the agenda. It is very close to areas like Oran Park and Wallacia, which are already very inadequately serviced. We really have to pull up our socks very quickly if the infrastructure is to cope with a new airport. That is to say nothing of “Green Building” and affordable housing. Why are we so slow in such matters? Our new Prime Minister has been talking big on technological matters. Which is great. How about a bit of discourse on green/affordable housing and transport in new areas as well Malcolm?? It’s not like we didn’t see the need for them coming…

    1. Thanks for your comment Angela. The term ‘community development’ has connotations I didn’t intend when writing the article. My focus was integrated development of whole precincts or communities that prioritise delivery of transport, jobs, services and education facilities before people are moved into them. I also wanted to highlight the need for more affordable housing in the inner city if our cities are to be truly sustainable and equitable.