It all started in July 1987. Sunway College – a higher-education facility with an impressive extension of 24 acres – rose adjacent to the Sunway Lagoon theme park. It formed part of the focal point of a wider development of a sustainable township, Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, where the region’s gritty past now rest. Once home to nothing but a mess of mining pools, the land used to be called “barren” and “hideous”. But academic tinkering – among other forms of urban planning – perked it up, and today it is a reminder of the way the landscape is perpetually smoothing its sharp edges.
In fact, the importance of education has been a fervent belief of Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah. To the rest of us, education matters for the most profound reasons. It is one of the few national institutions through which we can build a world in which we are more equal, the planet can be sustained, and our democracy gives us real and meaningful choices. Being educated gives us the faculties to think, create and be critical, and imagine better worlds. To the mastermind behind Sunway, however, the reason hits very close to his heart.
Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah grew up in the small town of Pusing, Perak. There, he witnessed first-hand the impact of poverty on families and how it closed off avenues for advancement, particularly in education for the children. Sharing an uncannily similar historical narrative as that of Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, Pusing was largely a tin-mining town too. “You could not fail to notice the ugly scars on the landscape left by disused mining pools after being mined out by the British. Poverty and environmental damage are not abstract concepts for me, but part of my personal experience. They helped form my convictions that education provided the best route out of poverty and misery, that we needed to heal a bleeding Mother Earth,” he earnestly shared.
These are memories Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah is desperate not to forget. And his life has, in many ways, ordered itself around these early encounters in his formative years. The man’s delicate but hawklike observations show a brokenness that was left in the wake of folly and time. Subsequently, the visionary man also shows the world how it can pick its way through that detritus: by weaving sustainability and education into the very DNA of his conglomerate and philanthropic endeavours.
Fast-forward three decades later to today, Sunway Group’s first educational venture, Sunway College, has grown more than just a little. Now part of the Sunway Education Group which comprises a total of 16 institutions and entities, it is owned and governed by the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF), Malaysia’s largest education-focused social enterprise, in which Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah himself plays both the founder and the trustee.
JCF’s philanthropic efforts are notably comprehensive, to say the least. In line with the foundation’s commitment to champion quality education and to advance knowledge, they range from advocacy and scholarship distribution to forging scholarly ties with world-renowned institutions – the latter of which has firmly cemented JCF as a voice of authority in the local tertiary education in the course of years. The said institutions include names that often take the top spots in annual world university rankings such as University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Harvard University as well as University California, Berkeley and the MIT in Boston. Other than developing articulations for twinning programmes that offers students learning opportunities at these elite campuses, some of the collaborations also set forth research and development projects specifically in the area of sustainability. As of this year, the foundation has disbursed more than RM538 million in scholarships. Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah’s personal goal is to award more than RM1 billion worth of scholarships in his lifetime