Walking the Talk

By Zakri Abdul Hamid

First published in New Straits Time on December 2 2019

LONG before sustainable development became the vogue, one towering Malaysian figure, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, began carving his footprints in the sands of time — literally — turning the sandy moonscape of Sunway into the vibrant township it is today.

Starting in 1974 with a small company mining tin — then a top export commodity for Malaysia in high demand in the global market — he has built a leading Malaysian conglomerate with interests in real estate, construction, education and healthcare.

What is both intriguing and admirable about his initiative is that it is not just about making money and creating wealth but also how to rehabilitate the environment.

He was once quoted as saying: “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.”

There lies the embodiment of sustainable development: planet, people and profits — the three Ps which Cheah has in abundance.

His passion for the environment may also be traced back to his childhood. Born under humble circumstances in Pusing, a small tin mining town near Ipoh, he saw, first hand, how the industry ravaged the land, leaving little except large disused mines as the industry faded.

In a recent interview with Singapore’s Straits Times, he said: “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.”

His showcase is Sunway City near Kuala Lumpur, a 350-hectare former tin-mining wasteland. Sunway City was Malaysia’s first integrated township — a clean, green, modern city with a rehabilitated ecosystem.

Envisioned decades before the sustainability movement took hold around the world, it is a prime example of how sustainability runs in the Sunway Group’s DNA.

Sunway City is home to malls, hotels, universities, a hospital and the famous water park, Sunway Lagoon. The community runs electric buses and is home to many green buildings and facilities.

The area is dotted with 25,000 trees and is home to about 150 species of flora and fauna. The Green Building Index (GBI), a green organisation certification board, certified Sunway City to be Malaysia’s First Sustainable Township in 2012.

“While I saw mining and construction as a necessity for development, I was discomforted that it was very much a zero-sum scenario. After more than 15 years, this whole place was really a wasteland. So I felt it was my responsibility to convert this wasteland back into something that is liveable.”

His enthusiasm is contagious: “I’ve plans to build an advanced filtration plant so that Sunway City can reuse the water in all our commercial and residential properties,” he says. “I’m also looking into how we can produce our own power using natural gas to meet our needs in Sunway City. All these plans are being deployed with sustainability in mind.”

Lately, he has been talking about the circular economy — a regenerative system where resource input, waste, and leakage are minimised through maximising usage, as well as recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life. According to Cheah, with the right innovation and invention we can reverse the causes of climate change and achieve environment-focused goals.

His passion coincides with an ongoing global movement on sustainable development founded and championed by Prof Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned economist from Columbia University. Sachs is currently the Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), operating under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

SDSN hosts events globally, convening leaders across academia, government, business, and civil society to advance solutions for sustainable development and to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed to by global leaders in 2015.

The friendship of these two “Jeffreys” is just pure chemistry. In 2014 the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation provided a RM42 million endowment to establish the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University. The first of its kind in Asia, the centre is a development hub for programmes that will train the next generation of students and policy leaders for Southeast Asia.

The Sunway City story must be told to the rest of the world. Too often, we in developing countries are on the wrong end of the stick when it comes to sustainable development — “destroying our tropical rainforests, driving our wildlife to extinction, and polluting our streams and rivers”. There are merits in those criticisms, and we should ponder over them and take the appropriate actions.

But there are also inspiring individuals among us like Cheah.

He said the best way to inspire is by “doing things and setting an example, rather than merely talking about it. At Sunway, we are walking the talk. We are demonstrating that sustainability and profitability can go hand-in-hand, and we can do well by doing good.”

Zakri Abdul Hamid, a member of the SDSN Global Leadership Council, is the founding chair of the SDSN Malaysia Chapter. He will be succeeded by Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah