Sunway City Ipoh boasts beautiful limestone hills, forest and hot springs. -Pic source: Sunway Group

Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, the founder and chairman of Sunway Group, hopes to develop three or four more sustainable townships under his leadership.

The group’s flagship project is Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, which is also the country’s first sustainable township development. Sunway is currently developing Sunway City Ipoh in Perak and Sunway Iskandar in Johor.

While Kota Baru is the next plan for Sunway, Cheah has hinted to CNBC’s Managing Asia programme host Christine Tan at the possibility of tapping Sabah and Sarawak, but he did not elaborate on his plan.

He said he had also been offered to develop sustainable townships outside of Malaysia.

“Like in China, they offered me. They came to us. I didn’t go to them. I was surprised when they (the Zhuhai government) called for lunch. The Zhuhai government ... wanted to build a township. They said that they quietly observed with the Chinese Ambassador what we have done and are doing. So, when they had lunch with me, they said, ‘What you built, a lot of people can do, but I like your management and style of leadership. You make it work’. That was why they wanted us to go there.”

Cheah said Sunway City Kuala Lumpur had succeeded in managing and operating an entire ecosystem, using the build-own-and-operate model.

Sunway founder and chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah sharing his plans for Sunway Group with CNBC’s Managing Asia programme host Christine Tan. - Pic source: CNBC

“We use this model quite frequently. It’s not easy to train people to give their best, to manage the centre like Sunway Lagoon. I had no experience. So, the whole thing is to get the right people who have the passion to give back, to give their best to me. When I interviewed people who wanted to work in a theme park, I said, ‘Do you have a passion to make families happy, to see fun and give smiles? But it’s hard work, because at theme parks, you have to go under the sun. These are the things that you must tell yourself that you have to go through, and you will enjoy it. You need the passion to make people happy. You are selling fun’.”

He said all the components that have been put in place to build, own and operate from scratch, they are profitable and growing organically.

“When people talk about sustainable development, they always think that it is just climate change. It is more than that. You have to look at the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) developed by the United Nations. We are talking about real good values for the future generation, for humanity, like no poverty, quality education, quality healthcare and well-being. All these are part and parcel of sustainable development.

“This (Sunway City Kuala Lumpur) is a good integrated township. It is a green township now. We start with being a good example and hopefully, other people will follow,” he said.


Cheah said when he got a hold of tin-mining land in Ipoh, it was surrounded by jungle. But there were also hills and hot springs.

“The hot springs coming out from the ground was over 300 litres a day, at more than 70 degrees centigrade. I remember when I was a child and a teenager, I used to come here to boil eggs in the little pool, and so did the late Sultan. He came here very often when he was a young man. With all this nature and beauty, I could add on to make it more exciting.”

Cheah said if compared to the Sunway City Kuala Lumpur township, it was much easier to work on the Sunway City Ipoh land because it had all the natural ingredients.

“There was almost everything in Sunway City Ipoh. But in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, which Lee Kuan Yew (former Singapore prime minister) once called a wasteland, there was nothing. The area was washed out twice, and mined for sand, stone and tin. But after developing Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, I felt that there were lots of opportunities to do the same, and make it even better. We came to Ipoh... where there was also an ex-mining site. But when I saw the site with the beautiful limestone hills, the forest and the gem of the place, the hot springs, I fell in love with it.

An aerial view of Sunway City Kuala Lumpur today. -Pic source: Sunway Group

“Although it was a sleepy hollow, I knew it would take a bit of time to bring vibrancy and get the foot falls. It was a challenge and I spent a lot of time in Ipoh. We have done it. Of course, it’s not completed. There are a lot more components to come in yet,” he said.

Cheah said as far as Sunway Iskandar is concerned, he was offered 728ha of land to be developed in joint venture with Malaysian sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

“Khazanah, who owned the land, approached me and asked whether I would be interested to do a joint venture with them. Of course I asked that if you want to have a township development, I would have to drive the project. (They said) ‘Oh, you have the power to do so’. That was how we started Iskandar.”

Cheah hopes Sunway Group’s three existing townships will be his legacy as a sustainable developer.

He also hopes other people will emulate to bring their eco-system into wastelands.

Cheah reiterated his motto — “I aspire to inspire before I expire”.

“Now, before I expire in that form, I hope to be able to do a lot of good for mankind. Climate change is a real thing that is happening. If we don’t address that, all of us will have a problem in the future. Hopefully, when people want to practise (sustainability), they will come and see what Sunway has done and do the same... to help bring better prospects, better future, better health, better well-being, (eradicate) poverty and all these things. That’s my hope, as my legacy.”