Building a progressive future

Modelled after the legacy John Harvard created for Harvard University almost 400 years ago, the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation is now Malaysia’s largest education-focused social enterprise.  

BusinessToday speaks to Jeffrey Cheah, Founder of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation on its milestones, plans in store for the future and what he plans to with an endowment fund that was recently announced.  

How and why did you start the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation?  

I started the Foundation to contribute to nation building to create a better and sustainable future for all Malaysians, particularly through quality education and research. And by the end of this year, the Foundation will have given close to RM540 million in scholarships and grants.  

My passion towards education came from my belief in my childhood. I grew up in a small town called Pusing in Perak and have 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 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.  

How important is quality education for nation-building 

For a country to prosper, it is not enough just to have education. It should also be of high quality and made affordable and accessible. The fundamental building blocks towards nation-building is to first develop our people – building a progressive future together. Which is why, I do this through quality education and research – without knowledge, there will be no progress.  

I am also convinced that education should be a not-for-profit venture. Which is why, in 1996, I set up the Sunway Education Trust Fund. And in 2010 , we established the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) to which I gifted all of my equity, worth several billion Ringgit, in perpetuity, in SEG.  

I started Sunway College in 1987 and for 12 years it was loss-making. Not that I was looking for profits. I just wanted it to be sustainable. Even my senior managers advised me to get out of the sector because the losses were hurting our company then. 

But I stayed the course. I believed that in setting up the College and admitting students, I had made a promise to our children and it was a pledge I was determined to keep. Eventually, we turned the situation around. I recall at that time how investment bankers tried to convince me to list Sunway’s education arm. They estimated that a public listing would be worth several billion Ringgit. 

Yes, a public listing would have been worth billions. But when students thank me personally for making their education possible, well, that feeling is priceless. 

It was tempting. I am a businessman, after all. But I stood firm in my conviction that education should be a not-for-profit venture. And I have no regrets.  

The Foundation is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What are some of your proudest accomplishments?  

What we are doing is investing in the future of Malaysia and investments in education take a bit longer than usual to benefit the nation.  

The Foundation has successfully established partnerships with world renowned universities including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard as well as University California, Berkeley and the MIT in Boston. Soon, we hope to be able to work with Peking University. 

Sunway University and Sunway Medical Centre have partnered with Harvard Medical School to conduct the annual Southeast Asia Leadership (SEAL) programme while the Sunway Medical Centre and the University of Cambridge have jointly established a Clinical Research Centre at Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. This centre will serve as the regional site partner for University of Cambridge.  

It is Cambridge University’s first such venture anywhere in the world.  

We also brought in Monash University Malaysia one of the leading universities in Australia, more than 20 years ago, and it is housed right here in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. 

What are some of your future plans in store for the Foundation? 

In the next ten years, we hope to be able to make a mark and help create a better and sustainable future for all Malaysians. In the education sphere, Sunway University aspires to be the global top 100 universities and the education hub of the East.  

My long-term ambition is to make Sunway University the Harvard or Cambridge of the East.  

Can you share with us what you hope to accomplish with the endowment fund? 

To help ensure the sustainability of the Foundation, we are looking into expanding its endowment fund. We target to have the endowment fund exceed RM1 billion within the next ten years. 

We are currently liaising with the Government on how the existing rules governing charities limit the scope of the Foundation’s efforts to ensure its long-term future. 

Under current rules, the foundation is required to disburse at least 50 percent of its funds received in the following year. The institutions then use the investment yields or the interests from the banks to fund their activities, leaving the principal amount intact to ensure the institutions’ long-term viability. 

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