IBM, which occupied two namesake buildings with a total of 12 floors at Changi, has reduced its presence to two floors, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing private matters. UBS Group AG has cut the more than 110,000 square feet (10,220 square metres) of space it occupied by more than half. Standard Chartered Plc, which owns two buildings in the park, has been seeking to lease out two floors with at least 58,000 square feet of office space, according to a property listing.

During a recent visit to Changi, several buildings had “For Rent” signs plastered outside their modern glass facades, including the space IBM formerly occupied, which is owned by government agency JTC Corp. Hansapoint, a seven-storey development with landscaped gardens and a gym, was only 36.5 per cent occupied at the end of 2023 following UBS’s downsizing. It was close to full previously. The Swiss bank declined to comment.

Hansapoint is owned by CapitaLand Ascendas REIT, one of Singapore’s largest commercial landlords. The overall occupancy of the real estate investment trust’s more than 2.3 million square feet of lettable space in the park has dropped to about 76 per cent at end-2023, from nearly 94 per cent four years earlier. Some of its underperforming business park units in Changi and elsewhere are being offered at a “3-for-2” rate – meaning that tenants can get one year’s rent free if they sign a new three-year lease, according to people familiar with the matter and a promotional campaign online.

A spokesperson for the REIT said it is in discussions with prospects for Changi Business Park, and that it employs a wide range of incentives to engage with potential clients and existing tenants. The firm’s overall business space and life sciences portfolio occupancy exceeds the industrial average in the country, the spokesperson said.

Singapore remains a critical global hub for Standard Chartered, where over 80 per cent of its staff here have adopted flexible work arrangements, a spokesman for the British lender said. The bank retains a significant presence at Changi Business Park and the downtown Marina Bay Financial Centre, he said. IBM, which also retains three floors at MBFC, said it remains committed to its local operations, and its “optimisation” of space at Changi in recent years has been shaped in part by its hybrid working model and the spin-off of its managed infrastructure services business.

Commercial towers at Singapore’s Marina Bay Financial Centre. Photo: AFP

While the challenges faced by Singapore’s business park landlords mirror those in other parts of the world, there are also some uniquely local issues that make marketing the properties an uphill effort.

Conceptualised in the early 1990s, Changi Business Park is part of a decades-long decentralisation drive by authorities, which include plans to develop a new CBD in the island’s west. The park is situated between Changi Airport – one of the world’s busiest aerodromes – and the country’s largest exhibition venue.

But for Singapore white-collar workers who prefer being in the central district, the business park is still a prohibitively far-out location. A bank employee who asked not to be named said she spends at least 90 minutes commuting each way via public transport, which costs around US$2. A taxi or a ride-hailing service would take less than half the time, but can cost as much as US$45 during peak hours, she added.

To make the commute easier, companies like Standard Chartered have arranged for shuttle buses to ferry staffers from their downtown locations or subway stations to Changi. Singapore is building a new underground subway line to slash travelling times from one end of the island to the other, but it is years away from completion.

Changi Business Park has also become a lightning rod for citizens’ anxieties about the city state’s wooing of foreign labour to meet business needs. The predominance of technical operations there has led to what a minister once said was a “concentration” of Indian expatriate workers, with some locals calling the area “Chennai Business Park” or “Changalore.

Singapore authorities have tightened immigration policies in recent years, such as by hiking minimum salary thresholds for work visa holders. That has pushed up hiring costs for businesses, making them consider basing their regional back-end staff in cheaper countries like neighbouring Malaysia. Some banks are using the threat of moving there as a negotiating tactic to get landlords to cut their rents in business spaces, according to a person familiar with discussions on rental renewals

Elsewhere, new supply is set to further challenge the market. Punggol Digital District, a 50-hectare business park developed by JTC in Singapore’s northeast, will start opening in stages from later this year. One person involved in marketing Changi’s properties described the effect of the new space as killing an already dying patient.

JTC said the Punggol project is an example of its efforts to keep business parks attractive. “While there appears to be increasing vacancies in older estates, we do not see this as a reflection of inherent weakness in any specific sector,” the agency said.

Overall business park vacancies in Singapore rose to about 22 per cent during the first quarter, the highest level in over a decade, according to government data compiled by property consultancy Colliers International Group Inc. Google parent Alphabet Inc. has given up about 60,000 square feet of space at Mapletree Business City, a business park on the fringes of the city centre. A Google spokesperson said the firm is working to ensure its real estate investments match the current and future needs of its hybrid workforce.

Investor confidence has been hit. Since last year, another REIT, Mapletree Industrial Trust, has been seeking to divest three of its Singapore business park assets worth S$533 million (US$396 million), including a nine-storey building called The Signature in Changi, people familiar with the matter said. A spokesperson for the REIT, which is backed by state investor Temasek Holdings Pte, declined to comment.

Local developer Frasers Property Ltd. recently reached a deal to sell a serviced-apartment and hotel complex in the heart of the park, which Chief Executive Officer Panote Sirivadhanabhakdi attributed partly to the “structural challenge” industrial and business parks are now facing.

To be sure, Changi recently recorded some success. Julius Baer Group Ltd. in April said it relocated close to 700 staff from Mapletree Business City to a larger space spanning over 75,000 square feet in the business park. The Swiss wealth management firm also has an office in Singapore’s Marina Bay area.

For the remaining vacant areas, the search for tenants continues. The once-occupied floors of the IBM building have fallen silent. One floor displays a dusty sign asking staff to move out by end-2022, while another still has cubicles and furniture, but no people.