As home to some of the globe’s fastest growing economies, Southeast Asia is no stranger to rapid urbanization and industrialization. The skyline of cities like the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur demonstrates the economic success that the region has recently enjoyed.
Many companies in the region have started to recognize the need to balance development and growth with sustainable practices, and that long-term success isn’t possible without a healthy planet.
One corporation in particular is setting a model example for Southeast Asia and beyond: Malaysia’s Sunway Group.
As a leading Malaysian conglomerate with interests in real estate, construction, education, and healthcare, Sunway Group is positively using its influence through its deep commitment toward advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Their founder, Tan Sri Dr. Jeffrey Cheah AO, is a trailblazer for sustainability in Southeast Asia. He wants to inspire others to adopt his core values of integrity, humility, and excellence - starting with his employees. These values, embedded into Sunway Group’s DNA, spur their commitment toward the SDGs.
“Our efforts at Sunway are driven by our recognition that realizing the SDGs is not the sole responsibility of governments alone,” says Cheah. “It requires the commitment of all sectors of society - the private sector, academia, civil society, and, of course, every single individual. We are all in this together.”
While Sunway Group has built a number of sustainable townships over the years, its crowning achievement is still Sunway City Kuala Lumpur.
Built on 800 acres of land that once housed a large tin-mining operation, Sunway City was Malaysia’s first integrated township. It was an ambitious project that turned a former wasteland into a clean, green, modern city with a rehabilitated ecosystem. Envisioned decades before environmental preservation was a hot topic, it is a prime example of how sustainability runs in Sunway Group’s DNA.
Recognized as a Low Carbon City by the Malaysian Institute of Planners, it is home to malls, hotels, universities, a hospital, and even a theme park. The community runs electric buses and has many green buildings and facilities. Its ecosystem also hosts 150 species of flora & fauna.
Sunway’s unique Build-Own-Operate business model makes the corporation an integral stakeholder of the communities in which it operates, in particular the smart sustainable townships of Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, Sunway City Ipoh in Perak and Sunway Iskandar in Johor, which span more than 5,000 acres across Malaysia.
Cheah and Sunway Group are also helping provide better education to Malaysians. Education is something close to the founder’s heart, as he believes that it is a tool that allows people to escape poverty and inspires them to build a better world. He has committed to spending RM 1 billion (US$ 249 million) to put deserving youth through Sunway’s educational programs.
“It has always been my belief that education should be a not-for-profit venture,” said Cheah. "Our very first educational institution, Sunway College, was established in 1987, and we nurtured our educational institutions for 12 loss-making years before they were able to stand on their own.”
This commitment to quality education is why Sunway University has built strategic partnerships with some of the world’s best universities: Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. This gives Asian students the opportunity to learn from the best minds of the world without having to uproot themselves and live half a world away from their families.
The Jeffrey Cheah Foundation has also provided a US$10 million endowment to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which was used to establish the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University. The first of its kind in Asia, the center is a development hub for programs that will train the next generation of students and policy leaders for Southeast Asia.
Sunway Group has created a blueprint for other Asian companies to follow. They’ve shown that conglomerates can balance their duty to shareholders, the community, and the planet. This shows that a company can make money without taking the environment for granted.
The group’s business continues to grow, and other township developments such as Sunway City Ipoh and Sunway Iskandar prove that the success of their ‘Build. Own. Operate.’ model can be replicated and is sustainable.
“The best way to inspire is by doing things and setting an example, rather than merely talking about it,” shared Cheah. “In short, 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.”