[SINGAPORE] One could well surmise that the year 2013 was when Iskandar Malaysia - the country's first economic growth corridor - finally came of age in a big way.
The mega-project, which turned seven last November, reported some encouraging numbers as far as its investments were concerned, although some investors are treading with caution after the government announced measures to cool speculation in the region's red-hot property market.
Iskandar Malaysia, a 2,217 sq km region in southern Johor, is three times the size of neighbouring Singapore.
As at Oct 31 last year, Iskandar Malaysia had attracted RM129.4 billion (S$49.8 billion) in committed investments - 44 per cent of which has been realised so far - putting it on track to meet its lofty targets of RM383 billion by 2025 and GDP of US$93.3 billion.
This goal, said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in a recent speech, must be achieved in order to transform Iskandar into an international metropolis.
Ismail Ibrahim, chief executive of Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), expects Iskandar Malaysia to secure RM22 billion in investments this year, beating the RM21 billion in 2013.
Singapore is still by far the biggest investor in Iskandar Malaysia, accounting for 16 per cent of its total foreign investment as at June last year.
Singaporeans from all walks of life are sitting up and taking notice of developments up north, their curiosity piqued after several household names in the Singapore corporate scene pumped big money into Iskandar Malaysia - a telling sign of the level of confidence in the project's staying power and viability.
Last February, Temasek Holdings and CapitaLand signed a deal with Iskandar Waterfront Holdings to build a S$3.2 billion township in Danga Bay, featuring luxury condominiums, shopping malls and bungalows.
Temasek and its Malaysian counterpart, Khazanah Nasional, are also jointly developing two wellness projects in Medini with a total development gross value of RM5.2 billion.
Medini is a mixed-use urban development that will feature a lifestyle and leisure cluster, a logistics village, a creative park and an international financial district, among others.
Many other Singapore firms are also striking while the iron is still hot. Last month, Iskandar Waterfront Holdings sold 15 ha of seafront land in Danga Bay for RM1.6 billion to Hao Yuan Investment, which is planning a RM8 billion development featuring, among others, peninsula Malaysia's tallest tower.
In October 2013, Singapore billionaire and former remisier king Peter Lim unveiled plans for his RM5.5 billion Vantage Bay project that will include twin towers and is set to become one of the tallest condominiums in Malaysia.
But it is Iskandar's property market that is getting the most attention, especially from Singapore-based investors.
According to developer UEM Sunrise, Singaporeans make up a hefty 74 per cent of foreigners who have snapped up its properties - a figure that surpasses all the other foreign buyers combined.
Most of these Singaporeans are people who either travel to Johor often for business or those who want a weekend home, according to UEM Sunrise CEO Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim.
UEM Sunrise is the master developer of Nusajaya, which is Iskandar Malaysia's administrative capital and billed as the region's crown jewel.
Overall, the greater number of investors flocking to Iskandar Malaysia has helped push home prices up considerably. The cost of bungalows at UEM's East Ledang development, for instance, has surged 44 per cent on average in the resale market since 2011.
But Malaysia is taking steps to prevent its own real estate inflation from emerging as well as appeasing locals who complain that they can barely afford to own a home.
In his Budget speech last October, Mr Najib - who is also the co-chairman of IRDA - doubled the minimum amount foreigners must spend on property and raised the capital gains tax to 30 per cent on homes they sell within five years.
Just how these latest rulings will impact the property market in Iskandar Malaysia remains to be seen, especially coupled with Johor's decision to impose a new tax of 4 to 5 per cent on foreigners who buy property - both commercial and residential - in the state to curb speculative fervour.
This is a big step up from the current rules which require foreigners to pay a one-off fee of RM10,000 regardless of the property's value.
Medini, meanwhile, could be seeing more investment in the coming years, with the zone exempt from the higher 30 per cent property gains tax.
In fact, Medini - home to a new Legoland theme park and hotel, and Britain's famous Pinewood Studios - has been exempt from property gains taxes since day one as part of the plan by IRDA to drive more investments there.
Looking ahead, the year 2014 could prove to be an even more monumental one for Iskandar Malaysia, should two major initial public offerings (IPO) be launched as planned.
Medini is looking to raise some RM2.5 billion when it eventually goes public. Iskandar Waterfront Holdings, meanwhile, was on track for a US$300 million IPO in the first quarter of this year, but has since delayed it to the end of 2014 to gauge the impact of the numerous property cooling measures.
From the government's perspective, it will do all it can to ensure Iskandar Malaysia remains vibrant and attractive to both local and foreign investors, Mr Najib said last month.
"The federal government is committed to ensuring the success of Iskandar Malaysia and we are working with the Johor government, the private and public sectors, and the people of Johor to ensure the economic region's growth," he said.
"It is vital to ensure that projects are successfully completed on time and within budget to build investor and public confidence in Iskandar Malaysia and attract more investments. This will generate a momentum that will bring about multiplier effects and sustainable economic activities," he said.