By Yuan Yanan
When Jeffrey Cheah bought an outdated tin mine near Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur for cheap 45 years ago, he could have never expected the tremendous changes that would happen there to spark the cause of a lifetime.
Today, as the founder and chairman of Sunway Group, a Malaysian conglomerate with core business in real estate and construction, 74-year-old Tan Sri Dr. Jeffrey Cheah has a net worth of US$1.3 billion, ranking him 13th on the Forbes List of Malaysia’s Richest 2019. “Tan Sri” is a title awarded by the Malaysian head of state to persons who have made significant contributions to the country.
On November 23, 2019, Jeffrey Cheah visited Peking University in Beijing as a practitioner of sustainable development and delivered a speech to the faculty and students there. The audience was impressed by his quiet elegance and humor. After the speech, China Report ASEAN conducted an exclusive interview with him.
Investing in Sustainable Cities
In 1974, when Jeffrey Cheah was 29 years old, he bought a small tin mine in Negeri Selangor, Malaysia at a low price of 100,000 ringgits (US$24,095) from British operators after the tin ore had been nearly completely excavated, with only three years left for mining.
“Because of mining activities, the land was dotted with mud and pits,” recalled Cheah. “The soil was so poor that trees could not grow, not even worms. When I decided to build a new township on this plot, many people thought I was mad.” Against all odds, Cheah remained firm. “I was extremely confident in the geographical position of this plot because it was only 18 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. Transforming it would be a formidable challenge, but well worth it.”
But considerable capital was necessary to carry out a large-scale transformation project. Cheah’s savings from his early years of work could not afford such a grand vision. He used his development plan to begin soliciting support from investors and bankers. Mocked by many as “indulging in wild fantasies,” he still eventually won financial support from enough banks.
In 1986, the Bandar Sunway (Sunway City) project was officially launched. Cheah introduced advanced technology from abroad to fill in the flooded pits and reinforce quicksand. The land was leveled for the construction of the project. Today, the former 5,000-acre mining wasteland has been transformed into a holiday wonderland known for water parks, hotels, exhibition centers, shopping malls, health care centers, universities and residential areas and valued at more than 10.6 billion ringgits (US$2.55 billion) as it hosts 36 million visitors every year.
After the success of Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, Cheah started seeing the possibilities and advantages of sustainable development. He was soon invited to participate in reconstruction of another tin mining city, Ipoh. “In contrast to the plot near Kuala Lumpur, the Ipoh plot was much nicer,” noted Cheah. “I had to inject energy and vitality into the area.” The miners working the Ipoh plot were apparently more friendly to its vegetation, hills and hot springs. “When I was young, I visited Ipoh and tried to boil an egg in the hot spring water,” revealed Cheah. He also recalled experiences of climbing up trees for coconuts while there.
Later, Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, invited Cheah to participate in the development of Iskandar in Johor, Malaysia, where the third Sunway City was planned to be built.
“Does the practice of sustainable development require sacrificing commercial profits?” This is a question Cheah hears frequently. Because of huge initial capital investments, Sunway Group has twice been drowning in debt teetering on bankruptcy—in 1987 and 1997. Cheah was forced to sell part of his business to introduce external funding for survival.
The practice of sustainable development requires huge initial investment primarily in public sectors such as medical care and education. Although market cycles become much longer, the commercial benefits are better in the long run.
Investing in Education
To achieve sustainable development, old concepts must be transformed, which can be accomplished through education.
“I hope that education will enable us to cultivate new leaders of sustainable development,” commented Cheah. In his view, sustainable development requires ensuring not only a sound ecological environment, but also high-quality education and healthcare for coming generations.
In his speech, Cheah repeatedly stressed the importance of education and learning. “Education is an effective strategy for poverty alleviation,” he opined. “Investment in education is the best gift we can give back to society.”
Cheah’s emphasis on education was inspired in large part by his experience growing up in the mining town of Pusing, where many families were stricken with poverty. “Many of my friends were forced out of school because of poverty,” he recalled. “They had to start working at an early age so their families could survive. But the lack of education became a barrier preventing escape from poverty.”
In 1986, Cheah established Sunway College. Outstanding academic performance helped the college get upgraded in 2004 and 2011. Now, Sunway University enrolls more than 20,000 students, 30 percent of whom are from 90 countries around the world.
The Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) is the market entity supporting the Sunway Educational Trust Fund. By 2019, the fund had offered more than 1 billion yuan (US$155 million) in scholarships to tens of thousands of students. “I set a goal to donate more than 2 billion yuan (US$310 million) in my life.”
Cheah believes that China’s enormous market presents huge business opportunities and that illiteracy could be an obstacle hindering future development of enterprises. He has pushed for his grandchildren to be educated in the Chinese language. In recent years, he has donated more than 25 million ringgits (US$6 million) to several Chinese language schools in Malaysia. He also donated 15 million ringgits (US$3.6 million) for construction of a Chinese language school in Sunway City Iskandar.
Cheah expressed his appreciation for China’s efforts towards sustainable development. “Humankind still has a long way to go to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ,” he admitted. “China has already made great contributions to poverty alleviation and ecological environmental protection.”
“I hope to spur positive change in this regard through concrete action and lead more entrepreneurs to devotion to the cause of sustainable development,” he declared.