London

Behind the scenes on Boris Johnson's Far East tour

Boris Johnson in Kuala Lumpur Image copyright PA
Image caption Boris Johnson met old friends and relatives as part of his business and investment tour to the Far East

If it felt like London's mayor was among friends in Malaysia, that was because he was.

The man who greeted Boris Johnson at the airport was Datuk Charon; a fellow student at Oxford University 30 years ago.

He is now head of the Khazanah Research Institute. Khazanah itself is the country's sovereign wealth fund - not a bad starting point for Mr Johnson, seeker of Malaysian millions for miscellaneous projects not yet disclosed.

"Give us the sites, give us the sites," was the refrain of the energetic Sri Tan Lieu, another man rapidly becoming a friend and the figure fronting the programme to renovate Battersea Power Station.

Not just friends but family too. The mayor's half-brother Max, who works for Goldman Sachs out of Hong Kong, dropped by for a couple of days including at an event hosted by the Battersea Power Station company, and spent time with Malaysian investors and representatives of the mayor's promotional agency London & Partners.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Boris Johnson played to the audience producing 'English' cupcakes made in Kuala Lumpur

Boris Johnson gave a speech to more than 1,000 people including the Malaysian prime minister, organised by his friend Mr Charon who introduced him effusively. Boris may have looked a bit older but otherwise he had not changed a bit from those student days, he said.

The audience liked it too - particularly his producing on stage a packet of English cupcakes made in Kuala Lumpur.

Mutual trade and cross-pollination were the themes, and to one diner it was striking.

Here was a British politician openly courting Malaysian money. A "reverse power thing", she called it. Not far off 60 years since the country's freedom from colonialism, the reality of the Asian power surge.

But away from the public appearances shaped for the cameras, the mayor's most important duties were at private dinners attended by what diplomatic and UK trade and investment types describe as "high net worth" individuals.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Boris Johnson visited City Hall in Kuala Lumpur where he met Mayor Ahmad Phesal Talib

They are events of the utmost discretion - not the done thing to talk outside of them about individual projects at this stage, or what may or may not have been on the mayor's sales prospectus.

But City Hall officials were prepared to disclose the guest list. With time, who knows, we may be hearing more from them. So in Kuala Lumpur there were convivial chats with the heads of various companies including Genting, IJM, Amcorp, Westar, MBF Holdings, MIUI, Goldis Berhad and MRCB.

In Singapore the mayor was entertained one night at the home of Ong Beng Seng, the man behind the Singapore Grand Prix and the owner of a string of hotels. His company Hotel Properties Limited recently bought the Royal Mail site at Paddington. Expect a planning application soon, no doubt also with proposals for housing.

On another night, Kwek Leng Beng was the host - chair of the Hong Leong Group and Millennium and Copthorne Hotels plc.

In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the high worth individuals gathered together by the embassy included people from the mining, hospitality and construction sectors.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Boris Johnson and Kuala Lumpur Mayor, Ahmad Phesal Talib (2nd L) visited Independence Square

For all of them it is clear there may be plenty of opportunities, with London's growing population requiring infrastructure to match. Presumably, the starting point for the mayor and UK government is promoting current projects with "funding gaps".

One snippet emerged suggesting investment is being sought for the Garden Bridge which has just received planning approval from Lambeth and Westminster councils but is short of a few tens of millions of pounds. But where would such an investment be recouped, unless in admission charges or sponsorship? Could the bridge be branded?

City Hall were keen to stress this tour was about seeking investment for much more than housing, partly at least given the sensitivity that has grown around foreign buyers.

But the mayor made clear several times it was his biggest priority, and at a business breakfast in Singapore rejected the suggestion the housing market was about to cool significantly in the capital.

Image copyright Arup
Image caption Westminster and Lambeth councils have approved the garden bridge, but Boris Johnson will have the final say

"The overwhelming demand will be so high, the shortage itself is so great, it will always represent a robust investment," he said.

The mayor accepts there is a potential risk of being seen, in the hurry to get construction moving, to be selling London on the cheap, but says he continues to insist on the usual planning principles.

However that has been finessed by creating 38 "opportunity areas" - those prioritised for redevelopment - where less challenging planning conditions are being applied to developers, particularly on the amount of affordable homes.

Give something a new name and loosen the rules, some say. An opportunity for developers and foreign money men, yes. But an opportunity for the newly qualified teacher looking for an affordable rented flat? That is the challenge.

And it's unlikely the answer was found, these last few days, among the business-hungry investors of the Far East.

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