A man is shaped by his past. Never is this more evident than in the way property and construction magnate Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr Jeffrey Cheah has lived his life and run his business.
Growing up in the small town of Pusing in Perak, Malaysia, he was the sixth in a family of 10 living on the single income of his lorry-driver father. His parents were illiterate and poverty kept many in his hometown from getting an education.
He himself only managed to escape small-town anonymity because he seized an opportunity to pursue a degree in business at Victoria University in Melbourne. The move laid the foundation for the empire he would later build.
Little wonder, then, that Tan Sri Jeffrey is a strong advocate of education. Says the Foundation Chancellor of Sunway University who has 10 honorary doctorates from leading universities around the world: “I believe that education is an extremely powerful tool, and we should never stop pursuing knowledge at all ages.”
Educating a new generation
Since 1986, the founder and chairman of Malaysian conglomerate, Sunway Group, which operates in 12 industries has been actively contributing to Malaysian education.
“Money is important in this world. But as successful as we are as businessmen, we must do our part to give back to society and the environment,” he once said.
Tan Sri Jeffrey pioneered the acclaimed twinning programme in Malaysia where Sunway institutions partner top-ranking universities worldwide including the University of Cambridge, Harvard University and the University of Oxford.
“We will not just stop there. We want to collaborate more closely with world-renowned institutions to make Sunway University the Harvard of the East”, says Tan Sri Jeffrey.
Sunway Group has also been donating generously to needy students. Its philanthropic efforts in education culminated in the establishing of the Sunway Education Trust Fund in 1997 which was converted into the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) in 2010 to make sustainable quality education possible.
In 2010, Tan Sri Jeffrey went one step further in his commitment to education. He donated all of his equity, in perpetuity, in the Sunway Education Group, valued at more than RM1 billion today, to the Foundation. This structure, the first of its kind in private education in Malaysia, was modelled on what other universities of renown have done, particularly what John Harvard did for Harvard University nearly 400 years ago. As of 2017, JCF has given out RM330 million in scholarships and grants. But the man behind it has an even bigger dream.
“It is my personal goal to award more than RM1 billion in my lifetime in scholarships”, says Tan Sri Jeffrey.
Investing in a greener earth
Tan Sri Jeffrey’s other passion is sustainability, borne of his experience in Pusing. His hometown was a tin mining town and he saw, first hand, how the industry ravaged the land, leaving little but large disused mines as the industry faded.
“Poverty and environmental degradation are not abstract concepts for me. They helped form my convictions that education provided the optimum route out of poverty, and that we needed to help heal a bleeding Mother Earth”, he says.
So, he has dedicated much of his business to developing green and sustainable townships like Sunway City in Kuala Lumpur, Sunway City Ipoh in the state of Perak and Sunway Iskandar in southern Malaysia. These iconic enclaves span about 5,000 acres across the country.
Sunway City in Kuala Lumpur was transformed from a desolate land into the country’s first fully integrated green township that is home to 25,000 trees, 150 species of flora and fauna and more than 200,000 people. There are even plans to establish it as a model “Smart Sustainable City” of the 21st century.
“Sunway is demonstrating that you can do well by doing good and that profitability and sustainability go hand-in-hand”, says Tan Sri Jeffrey.
The township is not just a place to live and work but a safe haven as well. In 2001, the Sunway Safe City Initiative was implemented to combat crime in the area. The next year, Sunway was declared a safe city by the police.
Sustaining a better future
Through JCF, Tan Sri Jeffrey intends to do more. The Foundation endowed US$10 million to the United Nations to establish the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University in 2016. The Centre will train a new generation of students, practitioners and policy leaders across Asia.
“I have discovered that philanthropy stems from the inner conviction that we, who have prospered from the resources provided by Mother Earth, have a duty to give back to society, and it can be done in many ways, not just through monetary means. We owe this to our society and nation and planet,” explains Tan Sri Jeffrey.
Tan Sri Jeffrey is committed to doing his part to fulfil the United Nations General Assembly’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015.
“We understand that realising the SDGs is not just in the hands of the government alone. It is a concerted effort of all sectors of society - the private sector, academia, civil society and, of course, every single individual. We are all in this together.”
With this single individual who rose from rural boy to billionaire philanthropist on the cause, there may be hope for a sustainable, educated world yet.