JOHOR BAHRU: Approaching Malaysia from Singapore’s end of the Causeway, an off-white structure slides into view on the left, a persistent fixture on the landscape with its distinctive spiral multi-storey car-park and cylindrical towers propped at the sides.
On closer inspection, the walls are cracked, stained and creeping with weeds, but glance again after crossing the border and it is transformed - save for the odd broken window or two - into a significantly less decrepit, near-gleaming facade.
“Looks nice from the front, right? But at the back it’s all lalang,” said Mr YS Phang, who for more than 40 years has run his watch store in the heart of Johor Bahru’s bustling, tourist-ridden old town - a stone’s throw away from the deserted shopping complex known as Lot 1 JB Waterfront City.
Over the last few years, Johor Bahru has seen a handful of ambitious redevelopment projects spanning the former Lido Beach strip and further inland to the Paradigm and Danga City malls. Both were revived after long spells of abandonment, but Lot 1 remains as it is: A “no man’s land” as described by its Perling state assemblyman Cheo Yee How, and an “ugly eyesore” to nearby residents and workers like Mr Phang.
Lot 1 was part of the RM6 billion Waterfront City enterprise approved by then-Johor chief minister Muhyiddin Yassin in 1993 and launched by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1996, in his capacity as prime minister at the time.
The plan was for a 2.5km seaside stretch to house more than 7 million square feet of office, commercial and residential properties, plus three hotels and a convention centre on piles-supported platforms lodged into the Johor Straits.
But it was just Lot 1 that eventually opened in 2000, only to be shuttered as the entire project crumbled three years later due to financial and environmental concerns. The state then promised the complex would be maintained and the steel piles extracted from the seabed. These have yet to happen.
“The building can be seen for exactly what it is - the failure of Najib Razak who has been the PM for nearly a decade,” said political scientist Dr Bridget Welsh. “He has to take responsibility for his governance.”
She, along with other analysts Channel NewsAsia spoke to, believe abandoned projects such as Waterfront City have long been overshadowed by the effect of China-backed investments on Malaysians. Some however warned against discounting their impact.
“The Johor people are very happy with the state government,” said researcher Dr Serina Rahman. “But things like this might turn people off BN (the ruling Barisan Nasional), when they are weighing up issues.”
A “MESS” ON MANY COUNTS
The Waterfront City project was developed by a joint venture between a contractor and the Johor state. But the venture - named Transbay - liquidated in 2006, and the property was put up for sale.
With more than 100 of Lot 1’s 350 units sold to individual owners, these shops have been servicing their loans for over 20 years now, said Andrew Chen, the assemblyman for nearby Stulang state, adding he had friends who lost large sums of money.
He also recalled how in 2016, he raised to the state assembly the issue of a lack of parking lots in Johor Bahru, with many Malaysians opting to leave their vehicles there and bussing over to Singapore. The state then proposed that more than 1,000 parking bays at Lot 1 be opened up to the public.
“It didn’t happen,” said Mr Cheo.
Then early last year, bloggers from pro-establishment camps circulated photoshopped memes of Dr Mahathir at Lot 1, accompanied by text describing it as a failed project.
Some months later, Muhyiddin, now expelled from the ruling party and appointed deputy president of an opposition coalition, moved to clarify Waterfront City as a “privatisation project with costs fully borne by private developers”.
“This project does not cause the state government to bear any liability,” he added. “Since this project is long-term, if it is not completed, then the state government led by people after me can take any necessary action against the developer concerned.”
The member of parliament for the federal seat of Pulai - a ward that covers Waterfront City - called it “a legal mess”. “Nobody has been willing to take over it,” Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed told Channel NewsAsia. “They want this amount of money, so if anybody pays up, then they can take it off them. But we have to let the private sector do it.”
Johor chief minister Khaled Nordin took a wider view, telling Channel NewsAsia: “Currently what we are doing is to ensure there is a right balance, taking into account the report made at the federal level in terms of the surplus capacity of residential service apartments, shopping complexes and that kind of thing.
“Apart from government restrictions and policies, it also depends on private developers to assess the market for whether there is still demand. I believe what we are seeing now is a period where at the end of the day, there will be a balance.”
DO PEOPLE CARE?
These days, the outdoor ground-floor car park at Lot 1 is used as a depot for towed vehicles. There are no signs of life other than a small office space perched over the water, its door still marked with a Transbay Ventures logo. Inside are two caretakers, a bevy of cats plus a monkey escaped from the zoo nearby and living there of its own free will.
“We’re just waiting for more development around here,” said one of the caretakers. “Then maybe this place will be revived too.”
The same sentiment could be found among a clutch of longtime shopkeepers at the nearby old town.
“If Lot 1 reopens, and management is good, then maybe I’ll be worried about business,” said Mr Phang, the watch store owner.
Dr Serina said the spectre of abandoned projects like Waterfront City would have little impact other than as a “niggly reminder” on who not to vote for.
“There are bigger issues at stake,” she explained. “People will think of bread and butter issues, matters of race, religion, loyalty, who they know, who can help them solve problems and survive to the next paycheck.”
But analysts like Saleena Saleem, a postgraduate researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Liverpool, said it would not be surprising if BN supporters were to dredge up issues in the manner of the aforementioned photoshopped images, to downplay Dr Mahathir’s legacy.
“To remind voters in Johor that bad financial decisions were made during Mahathir’s tenure, and that he is not really as financially astute as he portrays himself to be,” she noted. “This helps to contrast with the new projects - including re-development of some of the abandoned projects - that are underway with governmental support.”
Still Mr Cheo, the area’s state assemblyman, insisted that “JB people really don’t care”.
“It’s just one of those things that pop up now and then,” he said.
Dr Serina concurred. “When it comes to abandoned properties, things like old malls are too common in Malaysia. Everywhere.”