By: Lexie Ma, Tom Tsui and FY Lung

In a region where little attention is paid to sustainability and the environment, Sunway City, built on an abandoned tin mine on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, is a standout, more aligned with Singapore, whose Building Construction Authority aims for 80 percent of buildings to be Green Mark-certified by 2030, than Malaysia.

Wasteland-Turned Wonderland”

Called a “wasteland-turned wonderland,” this onetime township now boasts world-class resorts, hotels, shopping malls, schools and medical centers, and is home to 200,000 residents. It is the brainchild of developer Jeffrey Cheah Fook Ling, Malaysia’s 13th richest man. The  rehabilitation and transformation of the landscape has led to recognition as the country’s first integrated green township.

Thriving on a balance between sustainability and profitability, Sunway City has stayed on a course of sustainable development while remaining robust financially. The conglomerate reportedly accrued RM137.5 million  (US$33.51 million) in first-quarter 2018 profit, a 11 percent rise year on year.

Around Sunway City, posters and billboards of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are hanging everywhere, making clear Cheah’s determination to construct an integrated township and sustainable community. Unlike many companies which view green initiatives as a means to fulfill their corporate social responsibility, Sunway Group appears to set sustainability as the core value of the township.

The heart of the development is Sunway University, fully accredited both in Malaysia and by the Education Committee of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) of United Kingdom. But Sunway City didn’t always have college campuses, theme parks and a pyramid-shaped mall. Cheah bought an 800-acre tin mine and expanded his tin mining company, which later diversified into sand mining, quarrying and construction.

The business came to a halt when the late 1980s brought a recession, causing tin prices to collapse. “It nearly bankrupted me,” said Cheah, now a Tan Sri, one of Malaysia’s highest-ranking honorifics. He ended up selling quarries, one of his most profitable assets at the time, as well as laying off the unit’s employees.

“One incident that made me respect Tan Sri is that he promised not to abandon his quarry workers during the financial crisis,” said Dr. Elizabeth Lee. She joined Sunway Group’s education arm 20 years ago and is now its senior executive director. “He promised to employ them when he had earned back the money. And he did.”

Malaysia was the world’s largest tin producer until the price collapse some three decades ago. Following that particularly difficult time in the country’s tin mining history, the private sector sought to rehabilitate deserted mining sites for more productive land use.

Cheah was among the first entrepreneurs in the country to grant a second lease of life to a mining wasteland. As he turned his vision of an integrated green township into reality while further diversifying his business interests, Sunway Group supports 12 different business units, ranging from property development and hospitality to education and healthcare.

Cheah was not the only one transforming ex-mines into resorts either. In 1988, property tycoon Lee Kim Yew was tasked by the government to convert Hong Fatt Mines, the world’s biggest open-cast mine back then, into Mines Resort City, a tourist destination with a five-star hotel, man-made beach and golf course.

Sustainability and Profitability Hand-in-Hand

Today, Sunway Group has three publicly listed companies in Malaysia with a combined market capitalization of RM17 billion and 16,000 employees across 50 locations internationally, testament to how sustainability and profitability can go hand-in-hand.

“A lot of times, people think sustainability is a cost to what you do,” commented Chew Chee Kin, Sunway’s group president since 1999 and long-time friend of Cheah’s. “What you have to do is to minimize the damage you do to the environment.”

To achieve this, the company strives to be as scientific as it can. Producing clay pipe used to require 48 hours of burning, but Sunway Group has managed to reduce that to 20 hours, saving more than 60 percent of energy, according to Chew. “If it is something we can save energy, it’s very good for profitability,” said Chew.

Environmental and economic sustainability aside, Cheah also tries to facilitate sustainable cultivation of talent through the group’s education arm and philanthropic channels. Established in 2010 to continue the mandate of Sunway Education Trust Fund, Jeffrey Cheah Foundation has awarded RM270 million in scholarships to thousands of individuals for their tertiary education, making it a leading education-focused social enterprise in the country.

Managing the highly lucrative education business in the form of a foundation and running Sunway University as a nonprofit, Cheah effectively ensures that his education unit is free from any shareholder control. “Surpluses can be plowed back for scholarships, for research and improvement in facilities,” he explained.

The foundation also dedicated US$10 million for sustainable development education in 2016, one of the most generous amounts gifted towards the cause in recent years. “Our strategy and our long-term thinking is through education, education, education,” said Cheah. “I know education is the best way out of poverty.”

Success or Gimmick?

Education is not the only way in which Sunway City pushes forward its sustainable development agenda. Little remained of the tin mine’s original biodiversity when Cheah acquired the site.  A lot of work had to be done to rebuild the entire ecosystem. Even earthworms had to be re-introduced for soil revitalization.

“Of course, I had to do a lot of transplantation of trees and shrubs and all these, and today the ecosystem is back,” he said. “This mother earth is so important to us, if we continue to damage it, … our future generation will have a big headache.”

A quarter of Sunway City is designated as green space. The city offers free Wi-Fi coverage in public areas and provides free internet access for all students and residents.  A 4-km “Canopy Walkway” footbridge connects the city’s two universities and major facilities. Electric buses run on a flyover not shared with other vehicles. The group is urging the government to lower the bus fare, currently RM5.4 for a complete 5.4-km ride.

Attempts to promote sustainability in urban planning have won Sunway City multiple awards both within and beyond the borders. In 2017, it was recognized as an Integrated Smart and Low-Carbon Township by International Data Corporation Government Insights, a global market intelligence firm.

At first glance, Sunway City is nothing short of a perfect role model championing sustainable development without compromising economic viability. Nevertheless, things are always easier said than done, even more so on such a city-wide scale.

First of all, one questions if rules on sustainability are thoroughly implemented. Caterers at Sunway University continue to pack food in disposable plastic containers. Central air-conditioning on campus renders room-specific adjustments impossible. And recycling bins are yet to become common fixtures around the township. There seems to remain much room for improvement for Sunway City to translate the grand idea of sustainable development into the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

Regardless, with Sunway Group’s aggressive promotion on the notion, sustainability has over the years become a buzzword among city residents. Many are indeed mindful of sustainable living and serious about making positive changes on the environmental protection front through real-life practices. For instrance, there is Maslisa Zainuddin, a Sunway University design communications and interior architecture lecturer.

“[Sustainability is] something that I’ve decided to take onboard myself,” she said. A poster child for what has become known as “upcycling,”, Zainuddin proudly wears clothes refashioned from discarded garments on a daily basis. “Today’s top I’m wearing, it was a romper, which I refashioned into a high-low top,” she said, referring to her fitted ivory sleeveless blouse with embroidery details. “[The bottom part] is actually being transformed into a bow that sits on top of my shoulder of a tote bag that I’m making from an old skirt. Because as a designer, I still am a practicing designer, I just don’t believe in teaching and not practicing what you preach.”

“Walk the Talk”

While individuals like Zainuddin are making sustainability-conscious lifestyle choices and influencing others to follow suit, Sunway City is exploring new ways to closely align modern city life with the UNSDGs.

Yet, resources, policies and cultures do place restraints onto cross-national endeavors. “We’re doing a small project, eco-city project in Tianjin,” added Chew, as Sunway Group got invited by provinces in China to recreate the miracle.

Lexie Ma, Tom Tsui and FY Lung  are students at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center