Building towards a Harvard of the East

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 11, 2021 - January 17, 2021.
Building towards a Harvard of the East
-A +A

GROWING up in the small town of Pusing in rural Perak, Sunway Group chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah had many childhood friends whose futures were bleak because they could not afford schooling.

“The poverty and hardships that surrounded me formed my conviction that education provides the best route out of poverty and misery,” says Cheah in an interview with The Edge.

Those early impressions prompted him to set up the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF), which aims “to create a better, sustainable future for all Malaysians, particularly through quality education and research”.

The foundation completed its first decade last year, having awarded close to RM540 million in scholarships and grants.

“We target to have the endowment fund exceed RM1 billion within the next 10 years. This would also enable the foundation to establish professorial chairs at Sunway University in perpetuity,” says Cheah.

An accountant by training, his success story mirrors Malaysia’s growth. Cheah established the Sunway Group in 1974, starting with tin mining, then building the group into one of the nation’s largest conglomerates, with core interests in real estate and construction. Today, its 13 business divisions employ 16,000 people in 50 locations worldwide.

In keeping with Cheah’s aspiration to serve society, he has endowed the foundation with all 16 educational institutions and entities under the Sunway Education Group — the nation’s largest education-focused social enterprise.

Aiming to drive nation-building through education, he hopes that Sunway University can eventually rank among the top 100 universities globally and be the education hub of the East.

“My long-term ambition is to make Sunway University the Harvard or Cambridge of the East,” he says.

“I am aware this is unlikely to be realised overnight, perhaps not even in my lifetime, but what I am doing is setting the foundation stones for the future. Slowly, but surely, we will get there,” says Cheah.

Towards that end, the foundation has forged partnerships with world renowned universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, University of California, Berkeley, and MIT in Boston. It also hopes to work with leading Asian universities soon.

Cheah’s sense of social mission is a guiding principle for his business.

“I believe that each of us should have a higher purpose in life. In my case, that purpose is to give back to society in a meaningful and impactful way and to encourage others to do so as well. My personal motto is, ‘I aspire to inspire before I expire’,” he says.

Moved by a patriotic spirit, he feels privileged to be in a position to contribute towards nation-building through sustainable development, always telling his wealthy friends to give back to society as much as possible.

“The three values that I hold very dearly are also our Sunway’s core values, namely Integrity, Humility and Excellence,” he says.

It took humility to court the world’s leading universities for the sake of Malaysia’s future, he points out.

“It was not easy to convince these international institutions to collaborate with us. They are never short of suitors.”

However, the outcomes are promising for Cheah’s dream, with an impressive list of partnerships in the bag or taking shape. The major ventures are:

•    The Southeast Asia Leadership (SEAL) programme, conducted annually since 2016 by Sunway University and Sunway Medical Centre in partnership with Harvard Medical School.

•    A Clinical Research Centre at Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, jointly established by Sunway Medical Centre and the University of Cambridge.

•    Sunway Medical Centre will work with the University of Cambridge’s health partners, the Royal Papworth and Addenbrooke’s hospitals. A medical school is planned in collaboration with University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. The foundation is also in discussion with Harvard Medical School on relocating Harvard University’s Global Health Delivery Centre from Dubai to Sunway City Kuala Lumpur.

•    In collaboration with the University of Cambridge, the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre has been set up on the University of Cambridge bio-medical campus, which is the largest biotech cluster outside the US. The Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre houses over 150 scientists and clinicians at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), leading the University of Cambridge’s response against the Covid-19 pandemic.

•    The foundation is in collaboration with MIT to have its professors teach material science and school of engineering students at Sunway University. It is also discussing the possibility of setting up a school of engineering in Sunway University.

•    Sunway University has entered into a partnership with MIT to set up a carbon capture research project at Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, with equal sharing of revenues from potential commercialisation.

•    The Sunway-Lancaster partnership, ongoing for 15 years, delivers a range of undergraduate dual-degree courses at the Sunway campus in Kuala Lumpur. The degree courses are validated by Lancaster University, which is ranked among the top 10 UK universities and ranked as “University of the Year” by Times Higher Education.

•    The Sunway-Lancaster Future Cities Research Institute (FCRI) has been launched with an initial investment of over RM50 million to bring some of the world’s leading scholars together.

•    The foundation also brought in Monash University Malaysia, a top Australian institution, more than 20 years ago, located in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur.

Locally, Director-General of Health Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, was recently appointed as Malaysia’s first Jeffrey Cheah Honorary Professor of Medicine at Sunway University.

To ensure the sustainability of foundations like JCF, says Cheah, a reform of the income tax regime is necessary.

“We are currently liaising with the government on how the existing rules governing charities limit the scope of the foundation’s efforts to ensure its long-term future,” he says.

“Under current law, the foundation is required to disburse at least 50% of its funds received in the following year. This is very different from the rules in many other countries such as the US, and even Singapore. In these countries, institutions that are allowed to receive donations can set them aside for investment or to be placed in fixed deposit accounts,” Cheah points out.

To encourage philanthropy for nation-building, he says, the authorities need to look beyond the immediate goal of increasing tax receipts. He hopes that the foundation will be successful in its advocacy efforts.

‘Asian financial crisis taught us how to survive the pandemic’

By Syahirah Syed Jaafar


Organisations that have lived through the last three major economic crises and are still standing today can offer plenty of wisdom and business recovery insights as they face the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The growth story of Sunway Group, headed by its founder and chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, is a testament to how businesses must stay resilient and continue to transform against the backdrop of an ever-changing economic landscape.

“I nearly went bankrupt twice: in 1986, when Malaysia plunged into a deep recession; and in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis.

“Like a lot of other corporations, we thought the good times would never end. We borrowed too much, and when the ringgit collapsed and interest rates skyrocketed, it nearly took us down with it,” Cheah tells The Edge.

Starting out as a small tin-mining business in 1974, Sunway has over the years grown into one of Malaysia’s largest conglomerates with core interests in property, construction, education and healthcare, with a market cap of RM7.3 billion as at Jan 8.

Cheah says the one thing he has learnt from these experiences is that, when in trouble, one must never be in denial. “It is important to recognise and to accept that there is a problem that needs to be solved.”

Cheah acknowledges that, unlike these earlier crises, which were mainly financial and economic in nature, the Covid-19 pandemic is a global public health crisis that has affected lives and livelihoods, and virtually shut the world down.

From a business perspective, it has been an eye-opener, he says, as the challenges transcended not just the group’s bottom line but was seen in every facet of employees’ lives.

“Fortunately for us, we had business continuity plans already in place to mitigate the impact and repercussions of crises, which we then enhanced to deal with the current situation.

“This time around, we are in a stronger financial position. We took this opportunity to further strengthen our capital base and embarked on strategic investments,” Cheah says, adding that the group has also undertaken pre-emptive cost containment and productivity improvement measures.

One notable strategic investment the group made last year was to venture into the financial technology space. On April 24, 2020, Sunway announced that it had acquired a 51% stake in credit reporting agency Credit Bureau Malaysia (CBM), with the remaining 49% owned by Bank Negara Malaysia.

The group said the acquisition would enable it to advance its ambition of building a fintech ecosystem and secure a digital banking licence to promote financial inclusion for Malaysians and small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This is aligned with Goal 10 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) — reduce inequality within and among countries — and reflects the group’s commitment to the UN SDGs.

Cheah says while the fintech sphere is still evolving, the potential is immense, given its agility and flexibility in adapting to rapid market changes.

Sunway is also in talks with potential investors to expand its healthcare portfolio as part of its objective to enhance shareholders’ value, he adds.

One important lesson that the pandemic has brought home is the urgent need for the digital transformation of Malaysia’s economy and education system and the nation in general, says Cheah.

In that regard, Sunway is already ahead of the curve, he notes, as it had accelerated digital transformation efforts in the group even before the pandemic.

“Our digitalisation initiatives include implementing private cloud, big data analytics, e-invoicing and chatbots in our systems to increase productivity.

“At the strategic level, we will continue to focus on digitalisation and build a super app that will integrate and harness the synergies of our 13 business divisions. We will continue to pursue growth in adjacent businesses both organically and by acquisitions,” says Cheah.

In a rapidly evolving global environment, Sunway aspires to leap into a new phase of growth in the next 10 years through reinventing its existing businesses as well as capitalising on emerging growth opportunities, he states.

“After going through two very bad crises, I feel that the leadership of companies and organisations must continue to show resilience, endurance and tenacity. The pandemic will blow away, I’m confident. But we have to look at opportunities to grow the business.

“If you don’t do that, people may think we may not make it. We have to tell our people ‘No’. We are hit by the pandemic, yes. But we are well placed and well managed to get through these hard times and come out better. That’s what we did during the previous crisis. Having said that, I am confident that Sunway will come out stronger once this is behind us.”


Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.