Johor royal family's palace off Holland Road up for possible redevelopment

The former Istana Woodneuk on Holland Road in Singapore. (Photo by The Edge Singapore)

The former Istana Woodneuk on Holland Road in Singapore. (Photo by The Edge Singapore)

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At 30 times the size of the White House, the project would be one of the city’s priciest private developments for decades, and may cost as much as US$4.5 billion to develop, according to a Savills Plc estimate.

(Sept 28): A sprawling, vacant plot of land in the heart of Singapore, which inspired the setting of the hit movie "Crazy Rich Asians", may be transformed into a multibillion-dollar luxury residential development, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

Representatives for the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim — the land's registered owner — are in talks with local authorities for permission to develop a cluster of high-end homes on the swathe of jungle next to the Botanic Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage site, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

At 30 times the size of the White House, the project would be one of the city's priciest private developments for decades, and may cost as much as US$4.5 billion to develop, according to a Savills plc estimate.

If constructed, the luxury homes — a short ride to the famous Orchard Road shopping district — would likely draw interest from the region's ultra-wealthy who have long bought second homes in the city, a trend that is accelerated during the pandemic.

Singapore's red-hot residential market recorded US$32.9 billion of home sales in the first half, its biggest frenzy in more than a decade, and double the level recorded in Manhattan over the same period.

The undeveloped area is currently zoned for "special use of green space", meaning development for other purposes, such as residential or commercial, is restricted.

Discussions about the potential development have been ongoing since last year, but no final decision has been reached, the people said. Once both parties have signed an agreement, the area would need to be recategorised before development begins.

A representative for Peter Lim, who is assisting the Crown Prince on the land matter, declined to comment. Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the country's land planning, said it "is unable to discuss or disclose plans by private property owners".

The 210,875 square metre (2.3 million square feet) site plot owned by the Sultan of Johor was once larger, but has gradually reduced as the Singapore government acquired land to extend the Botanic Gardens. In 1990, the state bought a chunk for US$25 million and it got another 98,000-square-metre piece in 2009 for an undisclosed amount.

The Johor royals' land lies in the former Tyersall Park. Inside, ravaged by fire and decay, are the ruins of Istana Woodneuk, the palace built by their ancestors in the late 19th century.

Kevin Kwan, author of "Crazy Rich Asians", the book and Hollywood blockbuster about Asia's insanely rich, set the sprawling ancestral home of the fictitious Young family within the park.

The plot could be worth between US$2.66 billion and US$4.5 billion — based on current estimates of the land size and planning parameters — inclusive of development charges, according to Alan Cheong, executive director of research at Savills in Singapore.

Excluding the charges the owner pays to the government, the land's net value is at least US$600 million, Cheong said.

Landownership is a privilege in Singapore with the government owning about 90% of the country. There are only about 2,500 so-called good class bungalows — the local term for a mansion — typically located in prime districts. Some of the bungalows close to the Crown Prince of Johor's plot are worth US$20 million to US$30 million. 

Connected to Singapore by a one-mile causeway, Johor is the southernmost state of Malaysia, has close ties with the island state both economically and historically.

Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy, where the national throne rotates among rulers of nine states every five years. Johor is ruled by the 37-year-old Crown Prince's father, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar.