On-the-ground report shows what’s become of this $100 billion ‘city of the future’: ‘I didn’t see [any] signs of life’

The billing for Malaysia’s Forest City versus the reality is a tale of two cities. It’s advertised as a place with a perfect climate in Johor Bahru. On the other hand, when Insider’s Marielle Descalsota visited the $100 billion city last year, she didn’t exactly find a utopia.

“I saw signs of development everywhere,” she wrote for Insider, noting luxury apartments and resorts. “What I didn’t see were signs of life.”

What is Forest City? 

Marketed as a heaven on Earth, it is built on four human-made islands, according to the project’s website. Photos show lush greenery evenly mixed with buildings and pristine beaches.

Insider reports that 700,000 people were meant to live at Forest City, which includes nearly 4,300 acres and is more than six years in development. City planners said that 20,000 residential units were sold at the time of Insider’s visit.

But, Descalsota wrote that only a few thousand people were living there during her stay.

“I peered through the windows and saw carton boxes and prop furniture,” she wrote for Insider about one retail area.

Where’s paradise?

Insider’s article described a pool filled with discolored water and a beach with a sign warning people not to swim in the ocean.

The busiest spot was a duty-free store, where Descalsota said people were buying booze and cigarettes.

It doesn’t sound like the utopia described in one of the city’s more recent news releases — from December 2022 —  when developers won an award for green and sustainable construction.

Descalsota talked with Malaysia Technology University real estate professor Muhammad Najib Razali, who explained a simple reason why people are not flocking to paradise.

“[T]he apartments are expensive — they are unaffordable for locals,” he said in the Insider report. Condos can cost more than a million dollars.

He added that Malaysia doesn’t have a great history when it comes to developments. And stories of a ghost town in Forest City are scaring away foreigners, he told Insider.

It’s not exactly Eden

There are also ecological concerns surrounding Forest City. A lot of sand (enough to build islands) was placed in the ocean quickly.

“In spite of the technological innovations used to reclaim and build, sand dumped on mud seabed needs more than the [publicized] time to settle,” scientist and researcher Serina Rahman wrote, per Descalsota. Cracks in some of the buildings and sinking roads are the results of settling sand, she said.

The development is also reported to have impacted the local fishing industry. Fishermen are going farther into the sea in small boats to catch fish, Insider reports. Land reclamation for Forest City could be a factor.

The developers, for their part, told Insider that they followed regulations and respected “environmental protection.”

And the city planners were not giving up, at least at the time of Descalsota’s visit. A report by Future Southeast Asia from this year continues to market it as a city of the future.

“[W]e are looking forward to Forest City to thrive again,” the planners told Insider.

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