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Global Villager

   
[Photograph courtesy of Malaysia Tatler]

Orient-Express Magazine, Vol 15, No. 1

 

Tan Sri Dato (Dr) Francis Yeoh is the driving force behind many major tourism projects in Malaysia and elsewhere in South-East Asia. His sights are now set on a train linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

 

THROUGHOUT 2007 Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence - but Tan Sri Dato' Francis Yeoh CBE, one of the country's leading entrepreneurs, will have little time for the festivities. Instead, he is spearheading a string of groundbreaking projects which will doubtless make their mark on the next five decades.

 

Just three years older than Malaysia itself, Yeoh's life has many parallels with that of the nation. Describing himself as a country boy - "I grew up in a village and you can't take that out of me" - today the rural aspects of his life are less likely to be played out in a fishing settlement than in one of his company's bucolic resorts or rustic-but-urbane restaurants and spas. Yet an enduring passion for the natural world of his childhood is still discernible behind many of his futuristic plans.

 

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that the CEO of YTL Group, one of Malaysia's largest companies, arrives for a conversation about his luxury travel innovations dressed in jeans and loafers, topped by an expensively casual jacket. Relaxed, smiling and with a sharp sense of humour honed while studying engineering at Kingston University in the UK, he wears his drive and dynamism lightly.

 

Since being appointed managing director of YTL, his father's company, at just 24, Yeoh has transformed it from a single firm into five companies centred on construction and utilities, spreading as far afield as Australia's ElectraNet and the UK's Wessex Water. But it is his creativity in the world of travel that has most captured popular imagination: he is the force behind the Malaysian resorts of Pangkor Laut, Tanjong Jara and, more recently, Cameron Highlands; in 1993 he became one of the partners in Orient-Express' launch of the Eastern & Oriental Express train; and he has evolved Kuala Lumpur's Bintang Walk into a lavish urban village.


   
Former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad, with Francis Yeoh on the E&O.

With a holiday home in Klosters, Yeoh has long rubbed shoulders with travellers who seek authenticity and a sense of place rather than outright glamour. These are also the people who stay in the Marina Bay estates on Pangkor Laut - villas in exotic gardens on Yeoh's private island off Malaysia's west coast. Now he sees them buying properties of their own as vacation homes beside Pangkor Laut's secluded, southernmost bay. Here, just 20 artisan-crafted residences will encircle an infinity pool, alongside everything from a sushi bar and DJ to intimate cabanas-echoing the Nikki Beach resorts already established in destinations from St Tropez to St Barts.

 

Following the development of hugely successful marina enclaves such as Porto Cervo in Sardinia and Dubai, the action, says Yeoh, is now moving east. Islands like Phuket and Bali are set to take centre stage, and with them will come other exclusive ocean-edge hideaways for the yachting set. Unlike most existing sunshine destinations, South-East Asia's equatorial climate will lend it year-round appeal as a five-star playground, with visitors sailing among islands ahead of the localised monsoon rains - just as they currently move between Marbella and Mustique.

 

The new purchasers will come both from the West and the surrounding area, including India and China. "The next 20 years will see this part of Asia become the Mediterranean-Caribbean of the East," says Yeoh. "Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia... together they offer all the variety of the current hot spots. I'm looking for like-minded developers to bring them together and put this region on the international yachting map."

 

Work is already well underway on Pangkor Laut: the marina is taking shape and the foundations are being prepared for the tropical-style villas tucked in among forested cliffs with views out to sea. Across the water lies the larger neighbouring island of Pangkor, for which Yeoh has even more ambitious plans. "I want to rebrand the whole southern stretch to echo Porto Cervo," he says.


   
Artist's impression of a Pangkor Laut villa, bedroom and foyer.

Further afield, 15 homes hand-crafted to Armani Casa designs are set to appear on Singapore's Sentosa island, part of its extraordinary Sentosa Cove marina development. Positioned on waterside plots facing the golf course, each Lakefront Collection property will be tailored to its owner's needs, "like a bespoke suit", as Yeoh puts it, with touches such as space for a live-in butler or a cellar for fine wines.

 

As both an avid golfer and owner of a collection of consecutive Mouton Rothschild wines dating from 1945, Yeoh could no doubt picture himself sipping Bordeaux on one of these properties' terraces. Yet despite his twin passions, he insists that has no desire to add a golf course or vineyard to his rapidly expanding empire. "If I had either I would be forever trying to improve it - and ruin my game and love of wine," he laughs.

 

If golf and the grape fire his enthusiasm, Yeoh is no great fan of shopping - and so he played perfectly safe in setting up one of Asia's most spectacular malls. Much more than just a place to hunt down the latest fashions and luxury treasures, however, his Starhill Gallery on Kuala Lumpur's Bintang Walk is part of an urban enclave that also interlinks a number of hotels, restaurants and spas.


   
Kuala Lumpur's Starhill Gallery features 13 chic restaurants, including the Village Bar.

But in among the designer boutiques, craft shops, art displays and antiques stores, there is just one area where Yeoh might be tempted to produce his credit card: Adorn, an entire floor of luxury names, with Asia's largest gathering of international watch brands. "I love it - it's like my house. I know every nook and corner," he says. The man who declares "time is the ultimate luxury" owns at least 80 different watches to measure it, all of which he stores in a leather-tooled rotating case. Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, Jaeger LeCoultre, Roger Dubuis, Audemars Piguet - all these names and many more are to be found both on Yeoh's wrist and at Starhill. "I love what a watch stands for," he says. "Concentrated craftsmanship, technology, power and beauty. The constant innovation in what are small mechanical wonders is breathtaking."

 

Down on Starhill's lowest level is another area that is very close to Yeoh's heart, Feast, a cluster of 13 chic yet casual restaurants and bars serving a global mix of cuisines, is designed to resemble a rustic Malaysian village. "I go there every other day," says Yeoh. "All are open kitchens - everything is on view. There are no walls, no ingredients that aren't super-fresh. If you eat in one restaurant, you'll spot another and perhaps come back the following night. I put in winding, cobbled-stone paths and lit them by lanterns - to recreate the spirit of the Malaysian countryside."

 

"But it's not just me: there's a huge number of watch aficionados in Kuala Lumpur," he adds. Ground rents in Kuala Lumpur are a tenth of those in Hong Kong and a third of those in Singapore, which makes the Malaysian capital a great place to strike a deal. Watch collectors jet in from around the world - and also drop by stores like Louis Vuitton, which are exclusive to Starhill in the capital."

 

Now this Starhill experience is going global. Yeoh has plans to open sister galleries of luxury stores and restaurants in Singapore and London, with 2008 as a target date. Not only that: three years later he envisages gourmet shoppers travelling between the KL and Singapore malls by a privately financed fast train that will link the two cities in just 1½ hours. As with the Kuala Lumpur airport-city centre train, which YTL already operates, this twin-track service will offer non-stop journeys alongside local routes - the latter perfect for visitors wishing to alight midway for cities like Malacca (where Yeoh is now renovating an historic building to become his next deluxe hotel).


   
Dusk at Starhill Gallery; an atrium as its dazzling centrepiece.

And so Yeoh continues to take his company forwards: in anyone day he might launch a TV station (his Luxury Channel has just aired), or add to the construction projects that form the bedrock of YTL. But this "all-rounder" will also make time to leaf through his collection of CS Lewis letters, listen to opera (preferably performed by his friend Pavarotti), or help save the rainforest through his work with The Nature Conservancy. Whatever is next on his list, this self-described "technician", who specialises in creating dreams out of bricks and concrete, is already active on three continents: which leaves him three more to go.

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