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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 4, 2006
Malaysia Disneyland rumors pure Mickey Mouse
By Gary LaMoshi

HONG KONG - Malaysian property developer UEM World is the billion-dollar conglomerate you probably never heard of until it invoked Mickey Mouse.

For the past month, UEM World, with the connivance and encouragement of its shareholder the Malaysian government, has claimed that it's in talks with US entertainment giant Disney to build a theme park in the southern province of Johor. And UEM hasn't let Disney's denials deter it.

This Disney fantasy starts with Bandar Nusajaya, a new town UEM World is building in Johor, just across the strait from Singapore, on the outskirts of Johor Baru, Malaysia's second-largest city. The master plan for Bandar Nusajaya envisages

600,000 people living within the 10,930-hectare city by 2020.

"This development has been acknowledged by the Johor state government as an opportunity to plan a city for the 21st century, based on sound social and environmental principles," according to Nusajaya.net. The state government is so hot on the idea that it plans to build a new administrative center on some of Bandar Nusajaya's prime waterfront real estate.

"As a place to live and work," the website continues, "Bandar Nusajaya's role is to be the model for Malaysian cities to come." It's already a model for Malaysia's special brand of corporate-government hype.

Right fish, wrong pier
The official Bernama news agency reports that Malaysian officials and UEM are in talks with Disney about building a theme park in Bandar Nusajaya. The interest began when Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Disney officials attended the same information-technology conference in the United States. From that seed, a delegation of Malaysian government and business people went on to pursue the matter.

The first hint that something might be fishy was that they went to pursue Disney in Japan rather than in the US.

The delegates met with Oriental Land, operator of Disney's Japan theme parks in Chiba prefecture, outside Tokyo. That's a perfectly reasonable strategy for Malaysia, if it's serious about getting a Disney park in Johor. Oriental Land's Disneyland and DisneySea parks have been successful, and Malaysia would be smart to use that operator's experience and expertise.

But headlines stating that Malaysia is "in talks with Disney" ignore a key fact: Disney denies it.

"We are constantly exploring opportunities around the world as we look to grow our Parks and Resorts business," said Lisa Haines, Disney Parks and Resorts vice president. "At this time, however, there are no existing discussions in Malaysia and we currently have no plans for a Disney-branded resort development in that country. Oriental Land Co, which owns and operates Tokyo Disney Resort as our licensee, is a valued partner; however, they have no role in evaluating or negotiating other opportunities for Disney outside of Japan."

UEM has continued pumping up hopes for the deal. "We are talking to more than four parties, including the big one" that speculation is focusing on, UEM World chief executive Ahmad Pardas Senin told a Malaysian newspaper last week. Reports helpfully added "Disney" in parentheses after the quote.

Asked to elaborate on whether UEM World was talking to Oriental Land or Disney itself, Senin said, "You start by talking with the party closest to you and then move to the epicenter." But that hedge didn't change the headlines, or dim UEM World's hope that it might enjoy the higher demand and prices for its land that even speculation about a Disney park brings.

Intriguing possibilities
Media criticism aside, the question is whether there's a realistic chance that Disney would build a theme park in Johor.

The Greater Singapore market of nearly 5 million, including Johor, has intrigued Disney in the past and there's potentially attractive synergy with Singapore's coming casino developments, projected to increase annual tourist visits to 15 million. UEM World would offer free land and more to Disney, and Oriental Land could help ensure that the project meets Disney's specifications. But for the moment, Malaysia Disneyland is likely as attractive to Disney as producing "Mickey and Donald's Male Tails" as an X-rated cartoon.

While Disney has no presence in Southeast Asia, it's now in Hong Kong as well as Japan. A major portion of the Disneyland mystique comes from scarcity, and Disney is increasingly trying to leverage its parks and resorts into one-stop tourist destinations. A Malaysian park would definitely take business from Hong Kong and tarnish the brand's exclusivity. (For the same reasons, be very skeptical about rumors of a Disney park in Shanghai.) EuroDisney's woes, as well as the Hong Kong park's teething problems, have taught Disney that overseas gravy can have lumps.

A theme park in the China market, on extraordinarily sweet terms (see Hong Kong a roller coaster for Disney, January 6), helps Disney with its overall product portfolio, especially mass media. A genuine Chinese Mickey, Buzz and the gang are sure to boost interest in the television and movie franchises. Even though piracy is rampant in Asia, Disney sees that as a temporary annoyance (at least that's the company line) and a sign of demand that it can eventually hope to meet profitably. A park in Johor doesn't offer the same kind of synergy, particularly when you consider how much Southeast Asian money already carries a Chinese flavor.

Minnie under wraps
Of course, as the world's most progressive Islamic democracy, Malaysia could potentially open up another under-exploited market for Disney. The other side of that coin is that Malaysia could open a vast can of worms if the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia or PAS) managed to get elected and imposes Islamic law in Johor or nationally. The political specter, however unlikely, of guests being turned away or arrested because of uncovered knees or gender segregation in the park could be enough to persuade Disney to dismiss the idea. If Disney decides it's ready for Minnie and Daisy to don the hijab, then there's likely a more advanced plan with an even sweeter deal available for the asking in Dubai.

While the chances of Malaysia becoming a strict Islamic state any time soon are remote, politics there can't give Disney great comfort. On the one hand, Malaysia is a democracy, and opposition parties can win elections, at least locally. On the other hand, it's a still a regional poster child for crony capitalism and related forms of corruption. Malaysia simply can't offer Hong Kong's combination of rule of law and unassailable authority from Beijing.

Singapore can likewise offer similar certainty and comfort and is currently in the market for a theme park as part of its casino-resort development on Sentosa Island. Disney won't jump into the fray, having resisted the blandishments of Las Vegas for decades to preserve its wholesome image untainted by association with gambling.

Disney's inherent conservativeness also means that it won't build a theme park on speculation. Before DisneyWorld, Orlando may have been a blighted inland city in an economy organized around coastal tourism, but Florida was already well into its transition from a mere vacation destination to America's fourth-largest state.
If Singapore's casino developments, including a likely Universal Studios park, do bring in 15 million or more annual visitors by 2011 and, as some speculate, lead to the city-state's population growing to 5 million or more by boosting immigration and slackening emigration, it would be quite a feat. And if the plans for Bandar Nusajaya simultaneously pan out, then Disney may well be tempted to build a theme park, and it will likely find just as many inducements from some property developer then. Disney won't lead a parade to Johor, but it could follow one.

For the time being, though, the Malaysia Disney rumors are, in effect, corporate-government hypesters in overdrive trying to create a parade where they now have only an unbuilt street. While the outright lies of the Enrons and WorldComs of the world eventually bring mighty falls, such daily tidbits of half-truths that lead to market speculation probably cost investors far more.

Gary LaMoshi has worked as a broadcast producer and print writer and editor in the US and Asia. Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, he's also a contributor to Slate and Salon.com.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Rumors of "Malaysia Disneyland" (May 25, '06)

Singapore rolls the dice (Apr 7, '06)

Mickey's tale of two cities (Sep 29, '05)

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