Sunway Group founder and chairman transformed a tin-mining site into Sunway City Kuala Lumpur in less than 15 years.

Sunway Group is planning its fourth sustainable township in Malaysia, and it will most likely be in Kelantan.

Founder and chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah said the group has been offered to develop a township in Kota Baru, the state capital and royal seat of Kelantan.

“There is the possibility of building a fourth sustainable township in Malaysia. I think I can make a difference in Kota Baru. If not, I wouldn’t go. It won’t happen overnight. It takes a bit of time.

“We will have the first medical centre there in Kota Baru. With our brand, knowledge and tie-ups with the top university, people will come. I am confident that our people are excited (about the prospects),” he said in an interview on CNBC’s Managing Asia programme hosted by Christine Tan.

However, Cheah said the plan for the land will take ‘a bit of time’ as the ‘infrastructure there is poor’.

Kota Baru is home to many mosques, museums, old royal palaces (still occupied by the sultan and sultanah) with unique architecture, and former royal buildings in the centre of town.

The city is served by Keretapi Tanah Melayu’s intercity trains at the Wakaf Baru Terminal Station in Tumpat, and Sultan Ismail Petra Airport (also known as Kota Baru Airport), named after Ismail Petra, the 28th Sultan of Kelantan, who ruled from 1979 to 2010.

Sunway founder and chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah with host Christine Tan at CNBC’s Managing Asia programme recently.


Cheah, 74, was born in Pusing, a small town outside of Ipoh in Perak.

He had his primary and secondary education in Batu Gajah before leaving to pursue his tertiary education at the Footscray Institute of Technology (now Victoria University) in Melbourne, Australia.

Cheah, whose father was a lorry driver, started his career as an accountant at a motor assembly plant in Malaysia and was motivated to do his own business.

By chance he came across an opportunity to buy a tin-mining company, owned by a British in the 1970s. The company was mining more than 350ha of land in Bandar Sunway, Selangor.

When Cheah found out that the British company wanted to exit the business, he decided to buy the site. However, no banks would lend him money at first, as they did not believe he could transform the area.

That did not stop Cheah. The sixth in a family of 10 managed to get hold of RM100,000 and paid the British firm for the tin-mining site.

By 1974, Cheah founded the Sunway Group of companies to develop Sunway Integrated Resort City (now Sunway City Kuala Lumpur) on the 350ha land.

Cheah told CNBC there were a lot of challenges in the early days and people who did not take him seriously.

“It was negativity all along, right from the start. I got a lot of criticisms, a lot of negative comments from friends and bankers. I had no brand, no name. I was just... Jeffrey Cheah.

“I had to drive bankers down into the mine hole and give some artist’s impressions of what I wanted to do. They said I was just an accountant and not an engineer. I said that is where leadership comes in. You don’t need to be an engineer or a rocket scientist to go up the moon. You provide the facility and you lead people, good people with knowledge, with experience, with skill to help you.

Sunway Medical Centre in Bandar Sunway. - File pic

“I wasn’t 100 per cent confident I could pull it off but I knew I had to work my guts out to do it, and it’s worth it! I went through two very bad times... the first in 1986 when there was a very bad recession in Malaysia, and in 1997 which everybody knows was the financial crisis. It was a very, very good lesson for me. I made a lot of mistakes but I didn’t cheat people. It was all business decisions. I learnt my lesson that when there’s sunshine, there’s also storm,” he said.

Cheah said business is about trust and confidence in each other.

“When you shake hands, you honour. There must be integrity and we can’t compromise this. Today, it (the tin-mining site) has become a showpiece,” he said.

The multi-billion ringgit Sunway City Kuala Lumpur fully encapsulates the “livability” concept with the presence of seven key components — retail, hotel, offices, residences, education, healthcare and leisure.

The humble businessman said he owed his success to the value system.

“The value system sometimes is in-born. Skills can be learnt, but values we have will continue to cultivate. I always believe that one must be humble, because if you think you are good, there are lots of people who are better than you. So, why, why, why the need to be cocky? We don’t need to be cocky. Just relate to people as they are, and be kind and humane. I told my children that. I teach them about humility.

“I have seen a lot of young people who are just starting to be successful, and they become carried away. If you are cocky, even if you are walking into a deep hole, they’d say it’s OK.... go, go go. You know what I mean? That is not what we want.

“Be humble, people will help you. That’s the life-lesson learnt. If I didn’t have that kind of behaviour, I would have gone bankrupt because the stakeholders would not help me. When you are down, you need people to bring you up, and they must believe in you and that you are worth helping,” added Cheah

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