Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah leads by example in his quest to inspire and help Malaysians to achieve success.
WHEN Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah looks out from his executive suite on the 19th floor of Menara Sunway, the view of Sunway Resort City sprawled over 800 acres before him must surely evoke in him a sense of pride.
Sunway Resort City is just part of the success he has achieved as founder and chairman of Sunway Group which he set up as a tin mining company 40 years ago. It has now grown into a conglomerate encompassing 12 business divisions - property, construction, hospitality, retail, leisure, commercial, trading and manufacturing, building materials, quarry, healthcare, education and real estate investment trust (REIT) - and is acknowledged as one of Malaysia’s most formidable property-construction groups.
Despite such outstanding achievements, Dr Jeffrey, 69, is not one to rest on his laurels. “I feel I still have a bit more work to do,” he replies when asked how he feels looking out of his office windows to see, among others, the gleaming tower blocks bearing the Sunway name in the distance, or right below him the greenery-fringed Sunway Lagoon theme park, the world-class Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway University and Monash University Malaysia.
An accountant by training, Dr Jeffrey considers himself “fortunate to have achieved some of my aspirations, dreams and visions in the past 40 years”.
The transformation of Sunway Resort City from a tin-mining wasteland to a progressive, vibrant township with a host of thriving communities is one of his greatest satisfactions, he says.
“When we first acquired this land, it was nothing but a derelict tin mine, its surface akin to moon craters where nothing grows. Today, the township is home to a population of 200,000 including students from more than 100 countries, and hosts 42 million visitations yearly. Right now, we are building Malaysia’s first elevated BRT in the township that will connect to the KTM station at one end and the LRT station at the other end, and we are still busy expanding.
“A lot of this happened because we had support from our communities, and that’s why the theme for our 40th year anniversary is ‘40 Years A Part of You’, a tribute to the many Malaysians who have inspired us to come thus far. The Malaysian government has been supportive of our endeavours, and I am thankful for this.”
An important aspect of the Group’s business is education, and one of Dr Jeffrey’s dreams where this is concerned is to create a “Boston of the East” (centre of excellence) in Malaysia, which would involve getting a collection of eminent Ivy-League universities such as Harvard and Cambridge here. He’s also looking into creating a “Mayo Clinic of the East” at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences to enhance medical expertise.
“I have always said that I aspire to inspire before I expire,” says the true-blue Malaysian whose ultimate mission is to help prosper the country and people. “To lead a fulfilling life, one must have a higher purpose and, personally, I have found that my higher purpose is to contribute to others through education. Education became my choice pursuit as I find it gratifying to be able to contribute to a person’s life and success. Indeed, education is a powerful tool for transformation.”
As for the “Boston of the East” vision, he says it will be a place filled with a legion of scholars and thought leaders who come up with ideas that challenge the status quo and create waves of change for this country not only for this generation but many after. “This may undoubtedly take some time, even beyond my time, but I hope that can be achieved one day in Malaysia.”
A key factor that will leapfrog our growth is the internationalization of our higher education institutions, he adds. “This means importing talents, growing thought leadership, and encouraging world-class research, and that is why the Sunway Education Group has established links with Ivy League Universities such as Harvard, and world-renowned universities like Cambridge and Oxford. These, I am sure, will shorten our learning curve to excel.”
He says this needs to be done to create excellence in the education sector, in particular the private education industry. “From their beginnings as providers of pre-university programmes in the 1970s, Sunway College and Sunway University have become game-changers for democratization and internationalization of the higher education sector in Malaysia, bringing us closer to being an international academic hub that we aspire to be.
“In the 70s, in order to unite all the people of different races with a common language, Bahasa Malaysia was introduced by the government as the medium of instruction in school. While it was the right move, unfortunately they did not make English compulsory. Because of that we have lost two generations of young people who are not proficient in the English language. Thus, many of our graduates face challenges in getting jobs in the private sector.”
Another of the Group’s major projects is the development of “a future-ready township in Sunway Iskandar”. Built on 1,800 acres of prime land in Johor, Sunway Iskandar is envisioned to be the “quintessence of good living, a Nature’s Capital City,” Dr Jeffrey shares. “In Sunway Iskandar, we will translate our 40 years of experience in building townships into building a vibrant community that is the epitome of liveability so that this generation and generations to come can live, work, learn and play in a healthy and safe environment. We continue to build quality living for posterity.”
On how he measures his success, Dr Jeffrey says it’s not by “how many acres I have built but how many lives that I have had the great fortune to touch. I like to see happy families in Sunway Resort City, I like to see young minds educated in our institutions. To me, to be able to accomplish something for someone else is, by far, much more gratifying. As they say, you give a boy a fish, you only feed him for a day but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
Nevertheless, he says academic qualifications alone are not the be-all and end-all to being successful in life. “While quality education is undoubtedly a transformative tool, a person’s success, I believe, depends on hard work, fortitude and resilience,” he explains.
“I say this from experience as one who weathered two financial crises (1986 and 1997), which almost wiped me out. I have learned the hard way, come back stronger and wiser to steer things to greater heights.
“Perhaps the motto I have instilled in the company, which is integrity, humility and excellence, has brought us to where we are today.
“Every setback is a lesson learned. I have always believed in continuous learning especially from mistakes and challenges. It is lifelong learning, professionally and personally.”
Growing up in the small town of Pusing (Perak), he says he considered himself fortunate to be able to receive good education. “I saw this as an opportunity to create a difference for our communities. It is a blessing that I am sharing my aspiration through Sunway. I have always wanted to be a businessman as I think corporations are immensely powerful vehicles that can create impactful, scalable, and social-economic transformation. As individuals, we are limited in capacity, but as a corporation we are able to reach out to more lives, and impact the nation.
“This belief has driven me all my life and because of that, Sunway will always be in businesses that positively impact society.
“For instance, I will never venture into tobacco and gambling businesses that adversely affect society. I was offered two casino licences overseas in the past which I firmly turned down.
“Sunway’s unique business model - build, own and operate - is also an evolution of this belief as it translates to lifelong commitment to our communities.”
Talking about role models who inspired him as he was growing up, the businessman who is also known for his philanthropic work picks out John Harvard. “In my younger days, I learned about John Harvard who had bequeathed his fortune upon his deathbed to build Harvard University. During that time, he had bequeathed to the school £780 and a library of 320 volumes so that he could help advance learning and perpetuate it for posterity. I very much saw this as my life’s purpose as well.”
As for what he likes to do in his spare time, he says: “I have a boathouse in Sunway City Ipoh where I can go to, to enjoy the sublime beauty of nature while fishing. And I love to drive my super cars.” He also likes to walk, and he has been seen picking up litter along the way as he believes in keeping the environment clean.
Is he considering retirement yet? Laughing, he replies: “I will continue to work and walk, which is very good for me. You ask all the doctors, and they’ll say it is good for exercise. It does not hurt you and it will give you a longer and healthier life.”