Forest City - Futuristic city or farcical folly?
Find out as I frolic through the flora of this fake island while uttering other F-words. This is my on-the-ground review of Malaysia's mega land reclamation project in the Johor Strait.
Dispatches from Southeast Asia: Forest City, Malaysia.
Forest City is an artificial island project in Malaysia, located in the Johor strait opposite Singapore. It has been billed as the Shenzhen of Southeast Asia, with Singapore playing the role of Hong Kong. One of the earlier images depicted it as a Manhattan in the tropics.
I’ve seen enough new cities in Southeast Asia to know that they rarely turn out as the sales brochures depict, so I had to see how this was turning out in real life. I was booked to go to Forest City in April 2020, but that obviously didn’t happen. I ended up visiting in July 2022, not long after Malaysia reopened to the world. The city had been open for residential living for 5 years by then, but as it relied so much on Chinese investors calling it their second home, it was always going to struggle through the pandemic.
Everywhere I go I try and go by public transport to get a better understanding of transport in the region. This new city is projected to be home to 700,000 people, yet it is hard to get to if you don’t have a car.
My journey to Forest City started in Johor Bahru, which in itself is a hard place to get around by public transport. I went to the bus station at JB Sentral and I couldn’t find a bus that goes there. I went to the tourist office and they were confused as to why I would get a bus there. Finally, I went back to the bus station and another person told me that there used to be a bus but it stopped operating. This was not a good sign.
There didn’t appear to be a bus service from the nearest mainland town either, so I took the lazy option that we are afforded in Southeast Asia and booked a Grab taxi. I hate getting taxis for such a long distance, but it was only 90 MYR ($20 USD) for the 37 km trip.
Forest City has been in the news this year for being a ghost town, though that implies that no one is living there (like a ghost city in China). Some of these articles sounded clickbaity, so I wanted to see Forest City for myself.
As we approached the island a row of towers emerged on the horizon. They reminded me of the Soviet-era apartment blocks that you see on the fringes of Eastern European cities. As we crossed the bridge onto the island it started raining, and the grey skies added to the Soviet aesthetic of these towers (albeit in a tropical setting).
This is my review of Forest City. I spent two nights in an Airbnb, renting the spare room of an early buyer on this weird and lonely island. I came here ready to rip the island apart in the name of going viral on a news site. But it is complicated. Forest City is in some ways better than I expected, but overall it’s in bad shape and it made me mad at what a missed opportunity and colossal waste of resources this is turning out to be.