The Poor Boy From Pusing Who Turned Wasteland Into Wonderland, Now With Money To Make Amends

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The Poor Boy From Pusing Who Turned Wasteland Into Wonderland, Now With Money To Make Amends

Having been brought up in a life of poverty, Sunway Group founder Tan Sri Jeffery Cheah aims to give away a billion ringgit towards philanthropy in his lifetime to better lives. He speaks to AWANI Review's Cynthia Ng.

Growing up in the 50s in small town Pusing, just outside Ipoh, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah knows all about poverty and dire straits.

Having made his pile from tin-mining, which later grew into a diversified empire with interests in property, infrastructure, healthcare, education, the self-made billionaire has vowed to part ways with his well-deserved wealth to give others a leg up in life.

“Growing up in Pusing, I have gone through poverty,” says Cheah. “And the best way out of poverty is through education,” he adds, soft-spoken but assertive.

To change one’s mindset, habits and views of the world, it is through education

Through the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation - Malaysia’s largest education-focused social enterprise - he has pledged to disburse one billion ringgit in scholarships. And he is halfway through his life mission; the foundation has given away RM402 million since its inception in 2010, benefitting thousands of students.

“It’s priceless,” Cheah describes the feeling of meeting students who have benefitted from his assistance.

“I have always thought that we must have a higher purpose in life. After all, if you have made a lot of money, we (must help others). There are lots of poor people out there, people deserving to be assisted to get an education.”

“To change one’s mindset, habits and views of the world, it is through education,” he emphasises, adding that one of the biggest turning points in his life was having the opportunity study in Australia.

I Know What It's Like to Live in Poverty

It is, perhaps, with that experience and conviction, Cheah has spent a better part of his corporate journey investing in providing access to quality education; institutions under the Sunway Education Group has partnered with some of the world’s best universities.

“We are now linked with Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. They are research intensive universities.”

“I always tell my people, I want to shorten our learning curve,” says Cheah. “And this can be done through learning and working with the best.”

Cheah has also endowed the foundation with all his shares across the 12 institutions of the Sunway Education Group, now valued close to one billion ringgit, in perpetuity, emulating John Harvard who bequeathed half of his estate to a college, subsequently named Harvard University.

“I am very inspired by Harvard University because they have done it correctly. Without much government help, they are able to become one of the top universities in the world.”

“That is something I hope to leave behind,” says Cheah. “To preserve the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation in perpetuity, and continue giving to society.”

Don't Just Feed A Man, Teach Him How to Fish

Cheah has come a long way from working as an accountant in a motor assembly plant before starting his first business, a small tin-mining company at age 29.

It was an industry he knew well from growing up in Pusing, a rugged old town that enjoyed the spill-over from the economic prosperity from Perak’s bustling mining industry during its heydays.

But the tin-miner in him also saw the industry’s destructive effects toward the environment, which somehow planted the seeds of rehabilitation in the then up-and-coming corporate titan.

His early brush with destruction, environmental degradation and revival of disused mining pool into a thriving commercial venture, that is Sunway City, was the spur for his full embrace of sustainability - even well before the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals became a buzzword.

If we don’t do the right thing, they (the next generation) will suffer

“I told myself that I must try to do something to rehabilitate this piece of land,” he told AWANI Review from his office, located at the heart of the 800-acre township that houses the group’s three universities and the Sunway Medical Centre.

‘Wasteland to wonderland’ is a phrase commonly used to depict the township; the latter to describe Malaysia’s first ever theme park and resort Sunway Lagoon.

“I also remembered telling myself that I have to work very hard to convert this place into a nice township. That was my vision,” he says. “It is still a work in progress, I think, but things are shaping up nicely,” he adds modestly.

Cheah’s commitment toward sustainability is reflective in his work - he has endowed USD10 million to the Jeffrey Cheah’s Centre of Sustainable Development - and in person; the 74-year-old has been spotted walking around the township picking up rubbish.

“It’s not going to be easy but we need to start by doing something - doesn’t matter if it’s small,” says Cheah on his devotion towards promoting the global sustainability goals, of which its numbers and targets (laid out by the UN), he knows by heart.

“If we don’t do the right thing, they (the next generation) will suffer. If we don’t push the sustainable development goals, one day, our islands and coasts will be underwater. Climate change will be so bad that (cities) will be unliveable. What do we do? It’s too late then,” he says.

I Nearly Went Bankrupt Twice

Cheah, as an entrepreneur, is known to stay clear of anything related to gambling or smoking (his family broke up due to his father having a gambling addiction).

“We will never go into businesses that will harm society,” says Malaysia’s 12th richest person. “We were offered casino licences in a developing country. They wanted us to go over to develop townships. We said no.”

It’s not so much about making more money; it’s about helping to build a nation

The philosophy - to not indulge in unethical businesses - has been carried through in all of Sunway’s key corporate decisions, increasingly laid on the shoulders of his daughter Sarena and son Evan, as well as a group of long-serving lieutenants.

“It’s only right for any leader to have a succession plan, and I think we have a good HR structure in place. All our leaders - be it middle or upper level - are asked every year to name their successors.”

“Well, I am grooming,” he replies when asked if he’s found the right successor. “I am sure they will be able to take over after me. No issue.”

So, does it mean the tycoon will be stepping back anytime soon?

“It’s not something that I think I will do,” he says with a smile. “I always tell my friends that I might die faster, or Alzheimer’s will set in, if I stopped working,” he adds with chuckle.

“But if I can push myself, like our Prime Minister who is pushing himself at 93, I think I’ll be able to do it too.”

“It’s not so much about making more money; it’s about helping to build a nation. And there’s a lot an individual can do.”

“Going back to what I said earlier, we all must have a higher purpose in life.”

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