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
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.
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
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
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.