SUNWAY: ASEAN’s Sustainable Smart City Builder

Sunway City Kuala Lumpur is one of three overarching UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN-SDSN) centres alongside New York City and Paris. (Photo Courtesy Of Sunway Group)

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and the actions we take today as we work to recover will define our generation. The recently concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos Agenda Week introduced the Great Reset initiative. Pre-COVID economic development and sustainability conventions need to be reset and a “new normal” needs to be introduced. The world must act together to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions. 

Every country, from the United States (US) to Malaysia – every state, and every city, must participate, and every industry, from oil and gas to tech, must be transformed. In order to make this happen, the post-COVID-19 environment, its growth, and sustainability need to be based-off the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the key UN SDGs in this respect is Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities. 

More than half of the world’s population live in cities. By 2050, it is expected that two-thirds of all humanity – 6.5 billion people – will be urban based. Sustainable development cannot be achieved without significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces.

It would come as a surprise to many that Malaysia-based Sunway Group is one of the torchbearers championing sustainability here in Southeast Asia.

For many years now, Sunway’s bold and forward-thinking leadership has been steadily steering the entire organisation on a course with one goal in mind – to show the world that the hallowed targets set by the UN are not a mere pipe dream but something attainable.

At the centre of this revolution is Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, Founder and Chairman of Sunway Group. He is the visionary behind what could quite possibly be ASEAN’s only smart sustainable city in the purest sense – Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. The seeds of Cheah’s vision were planted long before terms like Smart City and Sustainability were familiar to us or bandied about by all and sundry as they are today. 

The Sunway Group has literally adopted the SDGs as the cornerstone of their core business strategies. The Group’s corporate vision clearly states its goal of aspiring to become a future model of sustainable development in Asia by enriching lives through innovation.

Cheah’s lifelong dedication to sustainable development is evident in thriving communities throughout Sunway’s integrated developments and townships, sprawling more than 5,000 acres across the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia.

Cheah’s place in property developer folklore was secured when he acquired a large area of tin-mining land that had been previously mined to a wasteland and transformed it into Sunway City; the go-to sustainable development showcase that experts point to when they need to reference an example of sustainability as a result of outstanding rehabilitation and restoration efforts.

“It is our vision for Sunway City Kuala Lumpur to be the region’s model smart sustainable city where our community live, work, play, learn in a safe, healthy and connected environment,” explained Cheah. 

In recognition of Sunway’s full embrace of the sustainability agenda and commitment to advancing the SDGs in Asia, Sunway City was chosen as one of three overarching UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN-SDSN) centres alongside New York City and Paris to coordinate continent-wide sustainability initiatives for Asia, the Americas and Europe as well as Africa, respectively.

As a developer of planned communities, Sunway built its reputation by crafting Sunway City from the ground up on a site that’s just a 30-minute drive from the Kuala Lumpur City Centre. 

Positioned as the most sustainable city in Malaysia, much of Sunway City’s success has stemmed from its thoughtful integration of technology and innovation into every fabric of urban planning. From transportation and energy management to world-class offerings in education, healthcare and hospitality, the city is highly efficient in how it serves and relates to dwellers and users of space. But chief among its effective measures is its proper urban planning.

As the years roll on, the essence and objective of Sunway have never wavered – to build a smart, sustainable city, and to bring about a lasting change.

As previously mentioned, the UN projects that an additional 2.5 billion people will reside in cities around the world in the next 30 years, with over 60 percent of the increase occurring in Asia. Therefore, cities and metro centres are facing pragmatic challenges to be more efficient, agile, and responsive in supporting the unique needs of fast-expanding urban communities. 

Over the years, many observers have looked to the successes of Sunway for the answers.

In recent times, “living lab” has become a popular tech catchphrase that refers to exploring and studying the daily environments of a society, and then creating real-world solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Sunway City is now a living lab – with initiatives driven by Sunway iLabs – which aims to foster innovations, generate and incubate ideas to address the challenges facing humanity. 

Sunway City is a test bed for researchers, experts and academia to generate real-world solutions for the prosperity and progress of the people and the planet. 

To note, iLabs was launched in 2017 with the aim of fostering entrepreneurship and to stimulate market-driven innovations. What started off as a platform for start-up entrepreneurs to build their ideas, has now turned into a full-fledged vision that could transform Sunway City into the sustainable smart city of the future.

“We created a platform (iLabs) to see what students were keen on doing, and types of markets entrepreneurs may want to focus on,” said Matt van Leeuwen, Sunway Group Chief Innovation Officer and Sunway iLabs Director.

“Then we started to learn as a (Sunway) Group, and to see how we could leverage the existing facilities and capacities within the Group and business units and bolt on to any digital, skill and technologies so that in the future we will not only lead the industries that we have already been doing, but also create new industries,” he explained.

Sunway City has long possessed key ingredients for the Living Lab initiative to flourish. As it has leading tertiary institutions and medical centres, and is home to the headquarters of Sunway Group, Sunway City presents itself as a fertile breeding ground, test bed and launch pad for ideas and innovations.

The Living Lab initiative focuses on six key areas including Smart Cities, EduTech, Digital HealthTech, Agri-FoodTech, E-Commerce and FinTech. 

IG1 Sunway
Source: Sunway Group

As a result of Sunway iLabs’ success and market leadership, other smart cities in ASEAN are mimicking this approach with early adoption measures that place them on a similar pathway to sustainability.

The Mastermind: Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah

The ASEAN Post had the opportunity to interview Sunway’s visionary himself, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah. He discussed his achievements, sustainable development, technology, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the economy, COVID-19, and the challenges he faced while building his empire.

The ASEAN Post (TAP): There is no other Smart City developer who Builds, Owns and Operates an entire smart city as far as we know within ASEAN. How have you achieved this?

Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah (TSJC): Our flagship Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, was founded on the concept of sustainable development. About four decades ago, Sunway City was a barren land of disused and abandoned mining pools. We rehabilitated the land, and built an integrated township that houses educational institutions, commercial entities, a medical centre, retail and leisure outlets and residential neighbourhoods that serves a vibrant community of more than 200,000 people living, studying, working and playing in a safe, connected and healthy environment. 

Our smart sustainable township is now a living lab aimed at generating real-world solutions in real time. I believe that the most important characteristic for the success of a sustainable smart city is its ecosystem. By ecosystem, I mean putting in place the fundamental building blocks such as quality education and healthcare, world-class research, presence of educated young talent and commercial entities. 

This helps create a holistic environment combining intellectual firepower, applied research, creative energy and entrepreneurship mindsets that interact and catalyse leaps of knowledge, both academic and experiential. And of course, advancing smart cities will involve the integration and application of cutting-edge technologies to drive digital innovation.

TAP: You are not formally trained as an educator and neither are you a doctor by profession. However, you have built two world-class institutions in Malaysia – Sunway University and Sunway Medical Centre. How have you managed to do this in two very competitive sectors of the economy? 

TSJC: I am an accountant by training. But I realised I have an entrepreneur mindset. So, I quit my job at a motor assembly plant and ventured into my own business. Sunway started out as a small tin-mining business in 1974. Over the years, we have grown into one of Malaysia’s largest conglomerates. Sunway has 13 business divisions and we rank among the top three in all the business sectors we are involved in. 

We have been able to achieve these results because we managed to identify the key success factor before venturing into each new business. We have grown to our current size by upholding our three core values of Integrity, Humility and Excellence. Together with these core values, we are also committed to meritocracy and diversity in operating our businesses. 

I’m not embarrassed to admit it, but luck also played a role in Sunway’s growth. In fact, I think all successful entrepreneurs should be humble enough to acknowledge the role of lady fortune in their endeavours.

TAP: With one of the best medical centres in the country, what is Sunway's contribution to Malaysia's COVID effort? How are you assisting the government in this time of need?  

TSJC: Sunway Medical Convention Centre was recently committed as a vaccination centre in the Petaling district (in the West Malaysia state of Selangor) for not just our own healthcare frontline workers but for 10 other private hospitals. This vaccination programme for the healthcare frontline workers from March to April is expected to vaccinate more than 3,000 private healthcare frontline workers. 

At the same time, Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre was also committed as the first private vaccination centre in the country free of charge for the Ministry of Health and the Petaling District Health Office to host and support the national COVID-19 immunisation programme. The centre will be the official vaccination venue for some 1.8 million people starting with frontline workers followed by residents in the Petaling district over the next 11 months until February 2022. 

We also recently established the Health Innovation Hub (HIH) in Sunway City, which is the first of its kind in Malaysia. This is a joint initiative by Sunway iLabs and AstraZeneca that aims to construct a network of partnerships that will work to solve, scale and showcase innovative and holistic health solutions, across the region. 

Sunway Medical Centre is also currently developing a pilot project in Malaysia in collaboration with Allm Inc., a Japan-based company providing ICT solutions in medicine and healthcare. The partnership with Allm Inc. was formed through an accelerator programme by Sunway iLabs in collaboration with the Japanese External Trade Organisation (JETRO) to drive the expansion on Japanese technology start-ups in Malaysia last year. The project aims to create a platform to aid emergency management.

TAP: Over 24,000 undergraduates from public and private universities all over Malaysia recently voted for Sunway as one of the most attractive employer brands in the Graduates’ Choice Awards. Clearly Malaysia’s young talent look to Sunway as an attractive path for career development. What do you think has formed this perception in their minds? 

TSJC: We seek out and hire talent regardless of nationality, age, gender or creed. What we value is character and expertise. It was not easy at first. But we stayed the course and today Sunway is a highly respected and well-known brand. 

I believe that companies that do not embrace meritocracy and diversity will have a harder time attracting and retaining talent. 

IG 2 Sunway updated
Source: Sunway Group

TAP: You have always been passionate about education. With an endowment fund expected to soon be worth RM1 billion (US$243 million), can you tell us about the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) and the pivotal role it is playing in nation-building?  

TSJC: Growing up in a small town called Pusing in the West Malaysia state of Perak, I witnessed first-hand the impact of poverty on families and how it closed off avenues of advancement, especially in education for the children. I saw how it deprived many of my childhood friends the opportunity to pursue their education. The poverty and hardships that surrounded me formed my conviction that education provides the best route out of poverty and misery, and that sustainable development is vital to the future well-being of our nation. 

As Confucius said, “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.” This is why high-quality education and research are vital. But in order for them to contribute to nation building, they should be made affordable and accessible to all. Hence, my conviction that education should not be a for profit venture, which is why these efforts are being undertaken by the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation rather than a commercial entity. 

The Foundation was established with a very specific mission – to contribute to nation building to create a better and sustainable future for all Malaysians particularly through quality education and research. Modelled after John Harvard’s legacy at Harvard University almost 400 years ago, the Foundation is now Malaysia’s largest education-focused social enterprise. To date, the Foundation has disbursed more than RM540 million (US$130 million) in scholarships and research grants. 

We target to have the endowment fund exceed RM1 billion within the next 10 years. In an effort to enhance quality education and world-class expertise in this part of the world, the Foundation has established partnerships with world renowned universities including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard as well as the University of California Berkeley and MIT in Boston. We also brought in Monash University Malaysia, one of the leading universities in Australia, more than 20 years ago, and it is housed in SCKL.

Whereas, Sunway University aspires to be amongst the global top 100 universities and the hub of education excellence in the region. Sunway University is relatively young, but to be able to gain the recognition and to collaborate with renowned institutions and accomplished professors itself speaks volumes of our quality and commitment.

My dream is for Sunway University to one day become known as the Harvard or Cambridge of the East. I know this may not happen in my lifetime, but I am putting in place the foundation to allow those who follow me to realise this dream.

TAP: The pandemic has been a stern test for all businesses but Sunway is weathering the storm admirably. Have the lessons of the past helped you cope better than most?  

TSJC: I nearly went bankrupt twice: in 1986 when Malaysia plunged into a deep recession and again in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis. Like a lot of other corporations, we thought the good times would never end. We borrowed too much, and when the Ringgit (Malaysia’s currency) collapsed and interest rates sky rocketed, it nearly took us down with it.

It is at times like these that you discover your inner strengths and also who your real friends are. I am thankful that largely based on our core values of Integrity, Humility and Excellence, our stakeholders trusted us and stood by us through the difficult times.

I was also fortunate to have a team of highly dedicated and smart colleagues who helped design and implement plans that enabled our group to emerge even stronger. 

The COVID-19 pandemic however has posed a very different challenge. While the earlier crises were mainly financial and economic, the pandemic is a global public health crisis that has affected lives, livelihoods and basically shut the world down. Having learned our lessons from what happened before, we already had business continuity plans in place to mitigate the impact of crises. We then enhanced and adjusted our plans to deal with the current situation.

This time around, we are in a much stronger financial position with a comfortable gearing ratio. We have also undertaken cost containment and productivity improvement measures to support the recovery across our 13 business divisions. Even as we continue to strengthen our business activities, we are also staying true to our commitment to sustainability.

TAP: Sunway City is a living lab which provides boundless opportunities in advancing sustainability; something that sets you apart from everyone else. How did you come up with this concept and why is it so integral in all that you do? 

TSJC: At Sunway City, we have built a physical and social ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurship and a creative environment for the solving of real-world problems in real time. The presence of three universities, commercial entities and our medical centre has turned Sunway City into a living laboratory and a test bed for innovative ideas. The living lab we envision is an amalgamation of expertise, talent and opportunities to generate sustainable, real-world solutions and ideas for Sunway City and our surrounding communities. 

We aim to provide an example for other cities in the region to emulate by establishing an ecosystem that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. We are also creating an environment that sparks imaginations and interactions. And we are fostering a sense of community that provides the social foundation for young talents to thrive.

TAP: Together with His Holiness Pope Francis, you joined world leaders to virtually launch Mission 4.7 (achieving SDG Target 4.7) at the Vatican Youth Symposium. What are Sunway’s initiatives to ensure that learners acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attributes needed to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? 

TSJC: Sunway is deeply committed to advancing the 17 SDGs adopted by the United Nations, as such we have incorporated these practices in all that we do. At the forefront of this global effort is JCF – we endowed US$10 million to the United Nations Sustainable Development Network Solutions (UN-SDSN) to set up the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (JSC) at Sunway University. 

Last year, we committed another US$10 million for the next five years. Headed by world-renowned economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who is also the special advisor on sustainable development to the UN Secretary-General, JSC aims to enhance and advance the sustainable development agenda through education, policies and research. 

I am particularly proud that Sunway City has been selected as one of the three overarching UN-SDSN centres alongside New York City and Paris. The new UN-SDSN centre for Asia housed at Sunway University will also host the head office of the SDG Academy, which is the education arm for the UN-SDSN, and lead flagship programmes of the SDSN in the region.

Currently, the SDG Academy at Sunway University has been tasked to draw up a curriculum on sustainable development to be introduced as a compulsory subject from kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12 levels) around the world.

The SDG Academy will play a fundamental role in Mission 4.7 that aims to accelerate the implementation of SDG Target 4.7, which calls upon governments to ensure that learners acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attributes needed to achieve the SDGs.

TAP: On the tech side, Sunway has formed Malaysia’s first tripartite collaboration with Celcom and Huawei on 5G advancement to position Sunway City as one of Asia’s model smart and sustainable cities. What IR4.0 solutions can communities in Sunway City look forward to in the near future?

TSJC: We recently entered a tripartite collaboration with Celcom and Huawei for the development of smart solutions via 5G technology in the areas of public safety and security, telehealth, e-learning, hospitality, leisure and retail experience, with Sunway City as the launch pad.

With 5G technology integrated into Sunway City, we are able to integrate and harness the synergies of our 13 business divisions. This will allow us to leverage our thriving ecosystem and produce meaningful real-world solutions that will advance innovative energy solutions for low-carbon cities.

As an example, we hope to start by using 5G technology to transform the environmentally-friendly electric buses plying elevated lanes in our Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system into autonomous vehicles. This would make us the first city in the country, perhaps even the world, to deploy driverless vehicles in a mass transit system. 

Sunway City has its very own BRT-Sunway Line which is Malaysia’s first dedicated and elevated electric BRT system that serves a population of more than 500,000 commuters in the vicinity.

We expect to reduce Sunway City’s carbon footprint even further with 5G technology, advancing our position as Malaysia’s first integrated green township.